UBC expert says policies needed now on driverless cars

Professor AnnaLisa Meyboom

Children today may no longer need to learn how to drive when they grow up, if some of the world’s leading automotive and technology companies have their way.

In the future, if they need to go somewhere, an automated car may pick them up, drop them off, and park itself – without any human intervention.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers anticipates that by 2040, three out of four cars on the road will be fully autonomous. A recent report by the Conference Board of Canada points to the imminent arrival of driverless vehicles, predicting it could save Canadians up to $65 billion a year due to less traffic congestion and transit time, along with lower fuel costs and fewer collisions.

UBC professor AnnaLisa Meyboom says getting there will mean working with a lot of moving parts.

Meyboom is director of TIPSlab, a UBC research group studying transport infrastructure and public space. She says intelligent policymaking and technology refinements will be needed to smoothly integrate automated cars into our urban designs and ensure the most benefits for everyone in society. And with the first wave of automated vehicles already being tested, it’s time to start talking about their impact.

In this Q&A, Meyboom reviews the state of driverless technology and calls for greater public discussion into how it will change our cities.

When will we see selfdriving, aka autonomous, vehicles on our streets?

Let’s define what we mean by autonomous vehicles. There are different levels of autonomy. Level 1 describes a car with simple assist features such as stability control, brake assist, cruise control, lane centering, or self‑parking. These features are pretty common nowadays.

At the other end you have Level 4, completely self‑driving cars that don’t require human intervention at any point. These cars can drive without anyone inside and can operate in a “return to home” mode.

We are already seeing some autonomous features on vehicles. Tesla says it plans to release a car next year that can drive itself 90 per cent of the time. Google says its fully autonomous cars will hit the road between 2017 and 2019.

But the specific date is uncertain, and it’s because of the social, legal and policy issues surrounding this new technology.

What are benefits of driverless vehicles?

Self‑driving cars can provide all members of society great transportation options, including the blind, disabled and the elderly. They can significantly increase productivity by allowing people to work or socialize while being transported. They can ease traffic congestion, pollution and parking issues.

Plus, automated vehicles will reduce the dangers of drunk driving and can be much safer than cars driven by people. Similar to aircraft, there will still be accidents but they will be much less frequent.

What’s the impact on public transit?

There could be a huge effect. They could make local buses and urban light rail obsolete. Private autonomous car sharing services could take over public transit and taxis. Or public transit organizations could decide to run autonomous vehicle fleets.

What sorts of issues are you working on at the Transportation Infrastructure and Public Space lab?

TIPSlab is a collaboration of researchers from architecture, landscape architecture, business, planning and engineering, and one of the things we’re looking at is how driverless vehicles will impact urban form.

For example, much less parking will be required in congested areas because the car can park remotely or return home. Demand for retail and office parking could drop significantly. You could own a car without needing parking space. Entire families could share a single car.

It’s important to fully understand the impacts of autonomous cars so all members of society can benefit from the technology.

It’s also important that governments plan for its implementation in a way that is deliberate and sensitive to the needs of Canadians.

Will the government allow selfdriving cars?

Autonomous drive features are being introduced as safety features and they’re generally supported by governments. The fully autonomous vehicle will be a highly contentious issue and there will be significant lobbying by many stakeholders. Eventually, however, I think that the technology will be adopted. We will look back on the days that we drove our own cars as reckless, similar to the way we look back on the days that we drove without seat belts and car seats.


One comment

  1. The wide impact of artificial intelligence in the years ahead suggests that we need a widening public education effort to help prepare our society for the profound effects it will have. Driverless vehicles is but one aspect of the changes that lie before us.

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