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Canada not ready for driverless cars, Senate report says

Senate report urges regulations to ensure safety of driverless vehicles, especially during Canadian winters.
Google's self-driving car is shown during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., in May 2015. The U.S. auto industry's home state of Michigan is preparing for the advent of self-driving cars by pushing legislation to allow for public sales and operation — a significant expansion beyond an existing law that sanctions autonomous vehicles for testing only. (Associated Press)

Driverless cars are already a reality and will become common on our roads in the near future. But a new report from the Senate Committee on Transportation and Communication says this country is not prepared for the new technology and measures must be taken to ensure safety. —

Experimental vehicles, such as those operated by Google, are equipped with cameras, sonar, GPS tracking and intelligent algorithms, and have already proven their ability to navigate through traffic, including busy city streets, without any human input. The major auto manufacturers are already offering new vehicles equipped with augmented cruise control, where the cars automatically hold their position in a lane, maintain proper distance to the vehicle ahead, provide emergency braking, are able to self park, and even back up with a trailer.

The ultimate goal is to take the driver out of the equation altogether, so future vehicles will have no steering wheels or pedals. You will simply program in your destination and it will take you there by the best route, avoiding other vehicles and hazards along the way. This will not only save you time and mental effort, the promise is it will also save you money.

The vast majority of vehicle accidents are caused by human error. According to the Conference Board of Canada, autonomous vehicles could play a significant role in reducing current annual road fatalities by 1,600 from the current 2,000 a year. Further, they estimate that the total economic benefit may be over $65 billion per year. Those savings could come from fewer collisions and lower fuel costs, among other factors. 

 Add to that savings in health costs from accidents and the economic benefits could be even greater... if the technology works according to claims.

This image provided by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the damage to the left front of the Tesla involved in a fatal May 7, 2016, crash in Williston, Fla. The sedan struck the underside of a semi-trailer that was turning onto a divided highway in Williston. The sedan's roof was sheared off before the vehicle emerged on the other side of the trailer. (NTSB via Associated Press)

At this point, driverless technology is not perfect. Fully autonomous experimental vehicles, which must have a driver present to take over if something goes wrong, have been involved in accidents. Recently, a Tesla electric car running on enhanced driver assistance, which is not fully automatic control, slammed into the rear end of a fire truck that was parked at the side of the road during an emergency. Last year a driver was killed when his vehicle rear-ended a truck. In both cases, driver inattention was partly to blame.

The Senate report urges regulations to ensure safety of driverless vehicles, especially during Canadian winters when snow covers road markings and changes the handling properties of the vehicle. Should driverless trucks be allowed on ice roads? These issues will be particularly important during the transition period when computer operated vehicles share the roads with those that are still driven by humans. 

But there are other concerns that go beyond the physical safety of passengers and pedestrians. There is the thorny issue of cybersecurity as well.

Driverless cars will be "connected," in that they will be sharing information with each other to avoid collision, as well as communicating with central control systems. That includes your personal information if you own the vehicle, or credit card info if you take a driverless taxi. Measures must be in place to ensure privacy so, for example, your whereabouts are not constantly tracked, or you won't be bombarded by targeted advertising, such as, "Are you looking for a new pair of shoes? There's a great shoe store coming up on the left." 

Then there is the spectre of cyber-terrorism, where hackers could break into the system and take control of all the cars in a city. Imagine the chaos.

The Senate report has 16 recommendations, including a national strategy for autonomous vehicles, safety guidelines, and cybersecurity measures to ensure the country is ready for the next era of transportation.

Advocates of driverless vehicles promise tremendous potential, in lives saved, reduced cost of ownership, or no ownership at all. Just call up a vehicle when you need one and it will take you where you want to go. This would be an enormous boost to seniors who are isolated and no longer drive, or people with mobility issues. But, as with all new technology, there will be bumps along the road as the new is integrated with, then eventually replaces the old. There will be resistance to the change from those who could lose jobs, such as truck and taxi drivers. Will the public trust vehicles that have no controls? Will people be willing to give up the freedom of driving a vehicle themselves?

These are important questions that need to be asked now, before we give up total control of our roads to intelligent machines.

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