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Rules of the road are destined for a profound change

Two years into its 10-year automated vehicle pilot project, the provincial government is looking to clear the way for on-road tests of driverless cars. Current rules call for the presence of a human in the driver’s seat, but that would change under this week’s proposal.

With the launch on Jan. 1, 2016 of its pilot project, Ontario became the first province in Canada to allow on-road testing. Participants include the University of Waterloo and Blackberry, along with the likes of auto parts giant Magna and the ersatz taxi service Uber.

The government has committed $80 million over five years to promote the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network project.

Automated and connected vehicle technologies have the potential to help improve fuel efficiency as well as reduce traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and driver distraction, say advocates.

There’s also the safety factor, as robust technology could do away with the human error that is responsible for 95 per cent of accidents.

Automated vehicles will also be a hugely disruptive influence on our transportation systems, from manufacturers to what are currently ubiquitous low-skill driving jobs. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to eliminate all driving jobs, from cabbies to transit workers.

Let’s look at the trucking industry, one of the largest employers and a place where there are jobs for those without higher education. According to the American Trucker Association, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the U.S. – it’s the most common job in more than half the states. Add to that another 5.2 million in jobs within the trucking industry. On top of that, there are millions more in related jobs, from logistics right on through to the diners and motels that cater to drivers.

Now, imagine all of the jobs disappearing as a result of a driverless truck.

The technology already exists today, just as it does with driverless cars, another use of technology destined to displace jobs such as cabbies and couriers. Driverless buses and trains will eliminate the need for transit workers, many of them an increasing burden on governments and taxpayers.

Many industries are likely to undergo massive changes, as the technology is likely to be electric, eliminating much of the petroleum-based business for vehicles. Moreover, we may not even own individual cars, instead adopting a system based on a smartphone app summoning a vehicle as needed. (Our cars currently spend about 90 per cent of their time parked, unused). That would dramatically alter the auto industry, along with the entire service business and the likes of insurance companies.

Fewer cars travelling more efficiently would change the face of our cities, reducing the demand for parking spaces, for instance, and sparking a reuse of land now dedicated to cars.

None of this is going to happen overnight, but each advancement breeds others – the nature of technological growth is often exponential. Advances will be incremental, just as they’ve been with the introduction of technology into our cars thus far.

With the changes to its rules governing the pilot project, the province sees the technology as ready for the next step.

The world is going to look a whole lot different before a whole lot longer.

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