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How driverless vehicles will change everything

In this photo taken Wednesday, May 14, 2014, a row of Google self-driving cars are shown outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

As the possibility of driverless cars becomes real, with companies such as Google, Audi and Mercedes-Benz getting in gear, researchers are already examining their future impact and are asking if we need to plan our cities more carefully.

The Conference Board of Canada is projecting that fleets of automated vehicles (AV) will start to become mainstream in 2020, leading to fewer accidents and hospital bills, reduced traffic congestion, less spending on fuel, obsolete parking lots and the revolution of entire transportation industries.

The economic savings could reach up to $65-billion a year, according to a report from the non-partisan think tank specializing in the economy.

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"2020 seems to be the tipping point. During 2020-2030, you'll see large AV penetration into Canada and around the world," said Barrie Kirk, a co-author of the report. "Because of the impact on health care, economy and on jobs, Canada has to look at the big picture – we can't just think of this as just a transportation issue."

Our attitudes, industries and regulations all need rewiring.

PEOPLE AS A ROADBLOCK

"People initially didn't like to do their banking on an ATM machine," said Vijay Gill, a co-author of the report and director of policy research for the Conference Board. "There's going to have to be a degree of trust and acceptance not just to get into a car without a driver but to even allow them on the road."

The fear of handing over the keys to a computer is still prevalent despite the report's projections that Canadian families could save $3,000 a year in transportation costs. But their fears aren't completely without merit.

TECHNOLOGY AS A ROADBLOCK

Sensor and security technologies would need to get better for mass use; companies such as Google are still conducting pilot programs and others such as Audi are incrementally releasing AV technology with self-parking cars.

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Governments need to overhaul city and regional infrastructure to incorporate the AV impact and its related technologies into urban planning and transit as well as the design of infrastructure projects, which are worked out decades in advance, said Mr. Kirk, also co-founder of Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, a research and consulting firm.

REGULATIONS AS A ROADBLOCK

A spokesman for the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario wrote in an e-mail that "the province of Ontario recognizes the importance of new vehicle technology … but safety is a top priority. …

"MTO along with Transport Canada (who is responsible for setting motor vehicle safety standards for new vehicles destined for the Canadian market) and other Canadian jurisdictions are monitoring developments in this technology, as well as the latest research and jurisdictional practices."

With government regulators, "we haven't got a lot of traction," Mr. Kirk said. "They have difficulty getting their arms around the issue because there are still a lot of unknowns – but my point is that it is far better to make an intelligent estimate at what public ridership will look like."

OUTCOMES

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Research from the Conference Board said more than half of the projected $65-billion in savings would come from fewer collisions; the time saved from driving would be $20-billion; reduced traffic congestion (because AVs drive much closer together) would save $5-billion, and reduced fuel costs could lead to $2.6-billion in savings.

LABOUR AND PARKING

However, more than half a million workers will see their lives disrupted if they are in the transportation industry, which includes trucking, auto insurance, parking maintenance, and taxi and bus drivers.

"If I could get to an office downtown without driving somewhere, parking, taking the bus, why would I? If something takes me right from my door to my job?" Mr. Kirk asked, adding that urban sprawl would increase as people would be willing to live farther from the core.

AVs could also ferry people from their homes to larger hubs of transit such as the subway whose ability to take many people would still be needed, Mr. Kirk said.

The driverless cars could simply roam around cities like taxis, moving from client to client, and could essentially make parking lots useless pieces of urban land.

This could be an issue, especially in large municipalities such as Toronto, where parking revenues last year reached $60-million, and Calgary, which raked in $22-million in fees and $8-million on parking lot property taxes.

Last year, another think tank, RAND Corp., explored how AVs would force the repurposing of parking lots in the United States.

Mr. Gill acknowledged that, for now, driverless cars "are only a gadget to people, but it's far more than that. People don't really understand how disruptive, how important and how much potential this has to transform the way we live."

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