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Rise of the machines: Why the robot car is inevitable

You love driving, don't you? Enjoy it while you can. The British government announced Wednesday that it's going to allow self-driving cars to be tested on the country's roads. The robot cars will be on English streets within the next six months, marking yet another milestone in the elimination of the human driver.

"This is the direction the world is going," says Barry Kirk, an Ontario engineer and director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre Of Excellence (CAVCOE). "It's inevitable."

The rise of the autonomous vehicle (AV) has taken place with surprising swiftness. Virtually every major car manufacturer has developed a self-driving car, and Google has clocked close to one million kilometres on its fleet of AVs in four U.S. states. Although state laws require a human driver behind the wheel as a backup, Google cars have racked up a near-perfect safety record. The only crash occurred when one of the cars was being operated by a human driver.

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Robot cars may soon be on the streets of Canada, too. In 2013, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation proposed a five-year program to test autonomous cars. Although it was put on the back burner due to the provincial election, AV advocates expect the Ontario test program to be resurrected as soon as next year. (As with the Google U.S. test program, the Ontario proposal requires that a human backup driver be onboard.)

Surveys have shown that the majority of drivers distrust robot car technology, but analysts and engineers say autonomous vehicles are inherently safer.

"Computers don't get distracted, and they have no emotions," says Martin Pietrucha, director of the Larson Transportation Institute at Penn State University. "They are far more reliable than a human being."

The development of autonomous cars is taking place on multiple fronts. A number of major universities are running research programs, and several major manufacturers, including Volvo, Nissan, GM and BMW, have announced plans to market autonomous vehicles by 2020. The association of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has estimated that by 2040, up to 75 per cent of all vehicles will be autonomous.

The elimination of the human driver is the next great transportation frontier. The road to the autonomous car began with technologies like stability control and anti-lock brakes, which enhance (and often correct) human performance. Features like adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection and lane-keeping sensors have increased the "intelligence" of everyday cars, and paved the way to the full automation.

"Getting rid of the driver is just the final step," says Kirk. "The technology already works."

Self-driving vehicles have been tested in a variety of environments. Suncor Energy, for example, operates giant autonomous dump trucks in the Alberta oil sands. The cars in Google's AV fleet have navigated some of the most complex driving environments in North America, including San Francisco's Lombard Avenue, famous for its steep grade and switchback turns.

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Next year, the British town of Milton Keynes will begin a public test of driverless, two-seat taxis. The city expects to be running up to 100 of the autonomous taxis by 2017.

Analysts predict that the adoption of autonomous vehicles will follow a pattern similar to that of the personal computer, with public acceptance steadily growing as the technology's benefits are demonstrated.

"There will be a tipping point," says Kirk. "People will see the possibilities, and they'll make the shift."

Eliminating human drivers will have far-reaching social and economic implications. Entire industries (like truck and cab driving) may be wiped out. AVs will also dramatically reduce (and possibly eliminate) crashes – as safety experts can tell you, almost all accidents are caused by human error. This will shift the landscape for industries like body repair and auto insurance.

"There won't be very many claims," says Kirk. "But there won't be much revenue, either. There's not much risk to underwrite."

There will also be a direct impact on the medical system. Treating car crash victims is a major industry. A decline in crashes would sharply reduce the supply of human donor organs available for transplant – the largest supply comes from drivers aged 18 to 30.

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Autonomous cars will have a positive impact on congestion – they can operate at optimum speed and spacing, maximizing traffic flow. They can also be used with networked control systems that optimize traffic flow by commanding cars to take optimum routes, and letting each car know what other vehicles are doing. This type of networked traffic system has already been developed for aviation – the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NexGen) is starting to be phased in across the United States.

Google has studied the impact of human drivers on road congestion by using what's known as Agent-Based Simulation – computers model traffic on a road system, and determine how flow is affected when a percentage of drivers engage in behaviours like tailgating, speeding and rapid lane switching. As the research has shown, these drivers have a significant impact on traffic flow.

Someday, those problems will be a thing of the past. "The robot car is coming," says Kirk. "Everything's going to be different."

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More

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