Three Changes That Need to Happen Before We're Ready for Autonomous Vehicles

By Anonymous ; Posted Jan 31, 2018

This blog is the first installment of a three-part series on what the future of Autonomous Vehicles is likely to look like in Canada and around the world.


Autonomous vehicles have captured our attention and our imagination, but there are many changes that have to happen before we’re ready to let self-piloting cars roll out of the driveway.


Canada’s Victoria Transport Policy Institute predicts self-driving vehicles will account for up to half of all traffic by 2040. Intel believes autonomous autos will add $7 trillion dollars to the world’s economy by 2050.


Companies like Amazon are already hard at work to figure out how it can incorporate self-driving cars and trucks into its logistics process, for either speedy delivery or even mobile storefronts. Got a cold? Just call the rolling dispensary to your driveway. Get your Neocitran without even changing out of your jammies.



It’s an exciting thought. But before we can hang up our car keys, Canada needs to make changes to accommodate this shift.




Right now, our governments know more about our roadways than private industry does. That will change, as companies need to intimately understand existing infrastructure and citizen behaviour patterns to create a world that is ready for autonomous vehicles.


Governments will need to change regulations to create standards not only for driver and vehicle (as today’s road and safety regulations do) but also offer guidelines for the algorithms and code that make an autonomous vehicle work.


In a recent interview with CNBC, Phillipe Crist says “there are no rules right now, international rules, on how to regulate automated vehicles.” Crist is the project manager for the International Transport Forum.


The US, the UK and New Zealand are among countries that have already started creating legislation to oversee the launch of AVs on public roads. The Canadian government has set a budget of $7.3 million to draw up regulations of our own between now and 2019. However highways and roads fall under provincial legislation and as of last fall, only Ontario had responded to the legislative and insurance concerns around AVs.



Alberta’s government launched a project to study the impact of AVs back in 2016, but it has not released any results or recommendations yet.


Urban Design


While existing infrastructure will have to accommodate AVs, new infrastructure being built will need to incorporate them from the design stage on.


For example, an anticipated byproduct of AVs is a concept called “platooning,” where packs of self-driving vehicles travel in a clump, and are therefore able to travel at much higher speeds than individual vehicles whose movements are not coordinated using software. The result would likely require road lanes specifically dedicated to vehicles with platooning capability, like an HOV lane.


Another example would be autonomous vehicles’ improved maneuverability because of the reduction in human error. This would allow for narrower lanes of traffic, but may also require a wider or more separated berth between active lanes of traffic and human spaces like sidewalks and crosswalks.


The way we ask drivers to pay for driving-related conveniences may have to change. For example, now people have to pay for parking in high density areas, but non-freeway toll roads are almost unheard of. If that scenario proliferates, it could be cheaper for AVs to circle the roadways continuously rather than park. This would contribute to traffic congestion and potentially pollution, depending on the type of vehicle.


Planning for Alberta’s first neighbourhood that is optimized for AVs is already underway. Developer Dream Unlimited is set to begin work on the new Providence neighbourhood in Calgary’s deep south that will be accessed by the city’s new ring road expansion.




New AV technology is being tested and improved all the time, but we are still a long way off from common usage or ownership.


The move from piloted vehicles to autonomy is by far the most technologically advanced shift in transport that innovators have ever had to navigate. That is significant when you consider that any change in technology that automakers have incorporated so far has typically required many decades to go from initial availability to market saturation. Examples include automatic transmission, hybrid technology and onboard navigation systems.


As it stands now, the most important components of a car being able to drive itself are its sensors. AVs need three kinds: multiple cameras to act as the “eyes” of the vehicle, radar, which can determine other objects’ speeds from long distances, and lidar, which sees other objects in 3D.


It’s the lidar that is slowing down the widespread adoption of AVs. The technology has been extensively used by military and police. For example, in underwater or air search and rescue operations. Certain advanced traffic speed enforcement equipment also uses lidar. But the technology remains prohibitively expensive. A personal vehicle’s lidar system alone would cost $75 thousand USD and that price does not include the software required to take the information gleaned from the lidar and use it to maneuver the car.


To get a sense of how vehicles would need to be programmed to be able to operate without a human driver, it can be helpful to consider just how many situations we might run into on the road that would have to be programmed into a computer for the AV to handle.


The Victoria Transport Policy Institute issued a white paper this month on the subject. The Canadian think tank uses the example of programming the car to anticipate potential risks such as wild animals or kids playing.


“To do this, autonomous vehicles will need a database that categorizes, for example, fire hydrants as low-risk, pets on leashes as medium risk, and wild animals, such as kangaroos, as high risk. In addition, children sometimes dress in animal costumes and adolescents in zombie variations. Most drivers can understand such risks. If I say, "Watch out for a group of teenagers in zombie kangaroo costumes," you could probably understand the threat since you too were once a playful youth, but a computer would be flummoxed, that situation would be too unusual to be in the standard risk database”

-- from “Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions” by T. Litman


The results of this could be for the car to miscategorize the risk, by either over- or under-reacting.


The Future


This does not mean that autonomous vehicles would be unsafe. New risks simply mean that the systems guiding these vehicles need to be increasingly complex, and much more testing needs to be done before AVs are viable for daily use.


However, with the technology advancing quickly at the hands of private companies, and the regulations and infrastructure changes moving slowly at the hands of governments, it’s clear that many are underestimating just how much science and policy need to coordinate before our roads are fully AV ready.




About the author: 


Bridget Brown


Bridget Brown is a Calgary-based writer. She runs Create That Communications, a marketing agency specializing in compelling storytelling. Bridget is an award-winning former broadcaster; she spent 15 years reporting and producing for stations across Canada.




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