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Treading the Highway to Autonomy

Missed The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association’s (MRIA) event Roads on Autopilot this fall? Get caught up on the state of Canadian public opinion and legislation on self-driving vehicles in North America.

In October 2017, The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association’s (MRIA) Ottawa Chapter hosted their fall event Roads on Autopilot, showcasing the state of Canadian public opinion and legislation in autonomous or self-driving vehicles in North America. With an introduction by Canadian Senator Dennis Dawson and moderated by Alison Crawford of the CBC, speakers and panelists included keynote speaker John Ellis of Movement.ai, Mike Colledge of Ipsos Public Affairs, Jeff Walker of the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) and Patric Leclerc of the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA).

Senator Dawson opened the event reflecting on the progress of technology and its impact on Canadians. He outlined the Senate’s main challenge: governments have been trying to keep up with changes in technology, only sometimes successfully. Ten years had passed between the invention of the seat belt and the legislation that made it mandatory, and fifteen years in the case of airbags, he cited.

Technology is shaping the future of convenience but it’s not quite “here” yet because policy is a laggard, and well-intentioned bureaucracy is a positively deliberate act in place for a more thorough review of policy implications. The future is closer to the present than we know, and according to a global Ipsos 2017 report, The Future of Shared Mobiliy, complete automation in vehicles or “driverless mobility” is a reality predicted to happen as soon as between 2026-30, barely a decade away!

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to redistribute traffic better, diffuse congestion and offer better urban design and ergonomics, solving numerous traffic problems. And while Ipsos Canada Next’s 2017 poll reveals a less-than-even split between tech-believers (49%) and tech-skeptics (51%), nearly a third (32%) of Canadians believe that autonomous vehicles would make our roads safer. Because computers are better than humans in following road rules, autonomous vehicles will actually stop at road signs, according to Senator Dawson—something human drivers might find strange. As 90% of traffic accidents are caused by human error today, autonomous cars could be the advent of safer roads. While it might be easy to see how a tech-town like Waterloo with an innate congestion problem, owing to its low population density not conducive to light rapid transit that translates to more cars on the road, adapts to this economic and cultural shift, is the rest of Canada ready?

Senator Dawson pointed to the “enormous impact” of automation and autonomous vehicles in rural Canada and the need for more study in this area. Public awareness is the biggest problem he cited, with low awareness only compounding fear. There are presently 10,000 employed in Ontario’s autonomous vehicles sector alone with promise for more investment. Canada is working with the G7 and the federal and provincial governments to draft legislation and dialogue between Canada and the United States to ensure smooth implications on cross-border traffic (for example in Windsor and Detroit) when AVs lead the roads.

Zero-dollar Model

A self-confessed big-pattern guy, futurist and technologist, author of Zero Dollar Car: How the Revolution in Big Data Will Change Your Life and a developer, John Ellis detailed the opportunities and challenges of living in the app economy. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are just some apps that demonstrate how everything is now a software company and how our cars are filled with millions of data-rich sensors. Consumers need to worry about how or whether they want to transact in their personal data. Ownership of consumer data in cars at the moment is with the automobile companies, and auto rentals collect huge amounts of consumer data they are unable to delete after. The shift to complete autonomy in vehicles will push the boundaries in data-economics, potentially allowing consumers to write off the objects and materials they own with the cost of their data.  Data is the new currency, where privacy is at the intersection of price and product, according to Ellis, who pushes this “Zero-Dollar (not free)” concept beyond automotive into everyday objects like smart-fridges and sofas. In the new economy, software strategy is going to be the leader, and transportation and automotive will need to lean in to this. Our vehicles carry so much data today—the largest mobile device we have is our car, warned Ellis.

The future of transportation stock is filled with non-automobile companies. Globally, Toyota (23%), Tesla (22%) and BMW (20%) are perceived as being the three leading players in self-driving cars, followed by Google (17%) and Apple (16%), before other large traditional OEMs like the Volkswagen-Group (15%). In fact, Canada’s QNS and Blackberry are the real pioneers of the autonomous car revolution.  A 2017 Stanford University estimated that by 2030, 25% of all miles travelled in the US will be shared with Autonomous Electric Vehicles. Legislation lags behind in Canada in contrast with the US, where 17 states have a license to test AVs on public roads.

Minimize Road Fatalities!

Death by vehicles is listed in the top ten reasons for human death by the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2015, there were 1,250,000 worldwide deaths by vehicles, with 1,858 in Canada, and 40,200 in the US. Driving is the new smoking, according to futurist and urban design maverick Gabe Klein, who uses public opinion research to spread awareness about public safety against human driving, citing a high correlation between car purchases and fatalities on the roads. Klein points out that designing a road around people (in Europe, for example, Oslo plans to ban cars in the city centre by 2050) can be done through technology like the autonomous vehicle, cutting the vehicle ownership rate by half, freeing up enough parking space to offer a roof for every head in the US.

Ellis clarified some facts:

  • It won’t take decades for autonomous vehicles to arrive but could happen as early as by 2026
  • Autonomous vehicles will mark the end of the individually-owned vehicle business model and move towards shared mobility
  • Rather than being programmed by if-then statements, AVs will be programmed by observational deep-reinforcement learning, where computers observe hundreds of hours of real-life video to learn how to drive
  • Miles driven is no longer a measurement of efficacy in autonomous cars as the quality of software will be the key determinant
  • Software in the self-driving car would automatically be programmed to follow traffic rules and regulations
  • AVs could reduce congestion with better ergonomics and no human drivers, taking up less road space

Flip side of Autonomy

Canadians and Americans appear to fear the loss of control with autonomous cars. CAA’s 2016 poll found that 62% of Canadians rate accountability in the middle of an accident as a top factor of concern about automated vehicles, followed by vehicle hacking (56%). Also, about half of Canadians trust their own driving skills more than technology and about 60% of Canadians don’t trust technology for reasons ranging from malfunction and lack of security, to risk and loss of control. In 2016, an AAA poll concluded that 78% of drivers in the United States are afraid to ride in a self-driving car, and 54% would feel less safe sharing the road with one.

Vulnerability to terrorism and hacking remain concerns. Urban studies theorist Richard Florida writes that in the age of AVs urban inequality would be exacerbated as the rich would continue to want to avoid commutes and move closer to and dominate the downtowns and urban centres, pushing the poorer further away from the cities. Mike Colledge projected that the consequences of a driverless economy could include not just the demise of the “driver” as a job (or the upscaling of ambition), but faster transit resulting in cheaper downtown properties for all, empty subways, and the end of brick and mortar retail with reliance on drone deliveries. The future value of cars may then be determined more by the value of data in them than in their ability to enable commutes.

Policy wise, Canada and the US are unprepared. Regulations with regard to vehicles, road safety and traffic, currently predicated on human drivers, would have to be rewritten, reviewed and reconsidered with autonomous vehicles, agreed the panel.

Global Outlook

Driving provides a sense of ownership to office-commuters. While the rising number of office commuters who travel by foot, cycles and public transit are a minority in comparison with the 75% of Canadians who prefer to drive to work, the tangible benefits of “shared-mobility” (trending with bike-sharing in countries like China, the Netherlands or France) are worth understanding to contextualize autonomy. Uber Elevate is already working to facilitate commuters to fly to work and back using skyports, and Boeing is also bridging Pilaso and Mandarin Bay with flying cars.

In aging societies, autonomy promises the benefit to seniors of being driven around by smart technology with enhanced safety, given that in Canada alone, the highest group of fatalities in cars is among the 55+ age group. Jeff Walker of CAA further revealed that the largest proportion of Canadians (55%) perceive “improved accessibility for people with mobility issues like the elderly” to be a top benefit of automated cars. The second most popular perceived benefit was reduced driver stress and fatigue for just under half of the Canadians surveyed.

MRIA’s event facilitated open debate and interaction on this heated topic. It remains clear that North American public opinion mirrors a mix of fear, skepticism and excitement towards driverless cars. While some cities in Europe and Asia tackle an automation-filled future by “liberating” their streets of cars, the highway to autonomy in North American automobiles twists and turns with more ambiguity and anticipation.

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