By R. Bruce Striegler

Toronto’s General Manager of Transportation Services, Steve Buckley, says he has enthusiastically followed autonomous vehicle (AV) technology since his graduate days in the nineties. “At that time there were pilot projects going on in California, but years later when I became part of government, I became highly skeptical of the model some of those projects were based on. It was incremental and dependent upon public sector infrastructure.” Pointing out that governments often tend to be risk-averse, he says that if they were required to be drawn into liability issues, planning for the new technology would stall.

Nut now Toronto is one of a handful of cities around the world actively looking at how it will handle the swiftly advancing technology. The fact that so few cities are preparing is worrisome. In the U.S., a December report from the National League of Cities found that only six per cent of American cities current long-term transportation plans consider the potential effect of driverless car technology, and some of the biggest benefits of autonomous vehicles will come in conjunction with careful infrastructure planning. Those benefits could include not just reduced traffic fatalities and injuries, but cut congestion and provide significant savings to municipalities.

When he first observed the curiously egg-shaped Google car a few years ago, and saw it was fully self-contained and not dependent on government infrastructure, that became his eureka moment. “Because Google was manufacturing all the components of the vehicle, all the technology, including hardware and software. I jokingly said it’s possible that they would find a way to get federal approvals and drop 10,000 of these cars on our streets one day, making it my problem to deal with.” In a report in Forbes magazine last May, Google’s self-driving car project director Chris Urmson says, “When we started designing the world’s first fully self-driving vehicle, our goal was a vehicle that could shoulder the entire burden of driving, taking anyone from A to B at the push of a button, while reducing up to 94 per cent of accidents caused by human error, as well as reclaim the billions of hours lost wasted in traffic.”

A little over a year ago, Buckley gave a presentation to heads of city divisions, “We conducted a workshop for about 25 managers, brought in some AV experts with the idea of getting reaction as to how the group was feeling about the technology.” He notes that even a year ago, autonomous vehicles were considered some futuristic thing, “But we’ve evolved to the point where there is agreement that AVs appear to be inevitable in some form.” Mr. Buckley says that his objective is to have the city coalesce around a position, “If we’re not necessarily planning for them, at least we should be preparing for them, and how this may impact the city.” He says that with on-going city workshops, “We’re working toward developing some principles or a policy on how Toronto wants to treat AVs.” From a pragmatic operations standpoint, Buckley tells us that there may be adjustments required for traffic signals systems, issues with the city’s transit system and procedural questions involving traffic rules and parking enforcement that will need to be addressed.

A look at the potential savings and benefits from automated vehicles

Buckley’s Transportation Services department commissioned a study from the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute. One of the surprising conclusions was that if AVs were at a 90 per cent adoption rate in Toronto today, the result would be annual savings of $6 billion, or four per cent of the City’s $150 billion gross domestic product. The report details that these figures include $1.2 billion from reduced collisions, $2.7 billion out of congestion costs, $1.6 billion from insurance, and $0.5 billion from parking fees and fines. The report also points to the fact that governments and industry in countries around the world are investing, providing facilities and organizational supports, and addressing regulatory needs to foster domestic AV technology innovation and facilitate implementation. “Comparing these initiatives, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Canada has some catching up to do.” The report further notes that as well as benefits, AV technology raises transportation and city planning policy issues and will affect every aspect of Toronto’s transportation demand management framework,

Mr. Buckley says there appear to be two distinct examples of automated technology that cities will need to prepare for. One is the traditional automaker version. Manufacturers are now building incremental autonomous functionality into new models. This includes collision-avoidance systems, automated park assist systems and adaptive cruise control technology. In fact, last June the American National Transportation Safety Board called for collision mitigation systems to be standard on new passenger vehicles and trucks. The list of manufacturers with publicly announced AV programs include Ford, Tesla and General Motors in the U.S., Audi, BMW, Daimler-Benz and Volkswagen in Germany, Honda, Nissan and Toyota from Japan while other European makers include Peugeot and Volvo. Many so-called Tier 1 automotive suppliers are also developing AV technologies. They include Germany’s Bosch, Canada’s Magna International, and US-based Delphi. Many other technology firms and automotive supply chain participants, such as Canada’s

Research In Motion, have joined the AV revolution.

Baidu, Google’s Chinese counterpart, partnered with BMW on an AV project in April 2014. Their joint prototype hit the streets of Beijing last December with an 18.6-mile drive around the capital that included side streets as well as highways. According to Buckley, the second version of AVs include the technology-driven types, such as those being developed by Google or Uber, with Apple also reportedly interested in the field. “Their model seems to be more oriented towards ‘transportation as a service’, which would include those who do not own their vehicles. These new vehicles will create mobility by ‘automated taxis’ at a fairly reasonable price. This probably becomes the new model of how people travel in cities.”

Reducing traffic-related deaths and injuries, providing increased mobility

U of T’s Transportation Research Institute report says that beyond the budget savings, further benefits could come. On the safety front, the report indicates an eventual improvement of 90 per cent or more on today’s average of 47 traffic fatalities and 16,200 injuries per year. AV technology will improve access to vehicular mobility for children and youth, seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income groups, with the report saying, “In 2030 AVs could significantly improve quality of life for a projected 75,000 seniors with severe or very severe disabilities who would face challenges in using today’s modes of public transit.” Toronto’s Medical Health Officer reports that traffic-generated air emissions contribute to about 280 premature deaths and 1,090 hospitalizations per year and cites a study from the U.S. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That study forecasts that electrically powered AVs will eventually reduce emissions by 87-94 per cent. The Toronto report notes that besides savings on parking and insurance, ownership and fuel costs are likely to be a fraction of what they are today.

Responding to a question of whether or not there will or should be some central senior government organization that sets standards and ensures uniformity of laws and criteria across the country, Buckley replies that federal government may be the one who sets loose standards or “boundaries”, “But, speaking as one who is in the public sector, I have to admit that we’re not known for being particularly nimble, so to get all these jurisdictions on the same page to pull off a master structure is not likely.” He adds that he sees the introduction of autonomous vehicles in Canada as being driven by the private sector. “We in the public sector will find our role is to ensure the public’s interest is protected.” In the meantime, according to statements by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, the provincial role is to ensure road safety, while trying to avoid heavy regulations that could stifle investment or innovation. The ministry expects AVs to drive on existing roads, possibly with minor additions such as special lanes reserved for robot cars.