Driverless cars: shifting policy gears

Driverless cars: shifting policy gears

Automotive and technological giants are competing to be the first to bring fully autonomous vehicles to the market. Companies including Daimler (Mercedes), Tesla, Google, Uber, and Lockheed Martin are all developing autonomous vehicle technology.

These vehicles will be able to deliver their occupants or cargo to multiple destinations independent of human input. Due to economic, environmental, and safety improvements in the future, car ownership will become undesirable. Instead, a fleet of autonomous taxis coupled with public transit will be able to satisfy peoples’ transportation needs.

The economic implications of driverless cars in Canada and around the world are immense. It is estimated that Canada would save $65 billion and the world would save $5.6 trillion per year by fully adopting driverless technology.[1] These savings come in the form of fewer collisions, lower fuel expenditures, and reduced traffic congestion.[2] Another source of savings will come from a reduction in car ownership for Canadian families. Relying on a fleet of autonomous vehicles could replace the costs of car ownership, insurance, and maintenance with direct door-to-door service, saving the average household $3,000 annually.[3]

Driverless technology will also have significant environmental benefits.  Replacing the majority of private cars with a fleet of electric driverless vehicles could lead to a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. About half of this reduction would be derived from selecting the optimal vehicle size.[4] Currently, many single occupancy trips are carried out in oversized vehicles but, by ordering door-to-door taxi service, vehicle size could perfectly match the requirements of individual trips. Changes to the way passenger vehicles are used would also remove the need for parking lots, which could be reclaimed as green space.

Firms involved in transporting goods may be the first to adopt widespread use of automated vehicles. The relative simplicity and reduced risk associated with being on a highway compared to urban driving increases the attractiveness of driverless vehicles. Human drivers can become distracted, tired, and are limited in the number of hours they are allowed to drive per week. Fully automated trucks would not suffer from any of these drawbacks and could be running constantly when not under maintenance. Automated trucks, like their car counterparts, would also be more cost efficient as they could optimize driving speeds, acceleration, braking, and minimize vehicle wear and tear.

Significant job losses can be expected as driverless trucks replace truck drivers. Approximately 560,000 Canadians working in the transportation industry will need to find new job opportunities.[5] Those affected are likely to resist the implementation of this new technology and may lobby the government to create legal barriers. The reallocation of labour into new industries will increase Canada’s total output as transportation of goods no longer requires human labour.

Industries that do not rely on publicly run roads have already experienced efficiency gains by implementing driverless vehicles in their workforce. The mining company, Rio Tinto, already operates 50 self-driving trucks in their mining operations situated in Australia. Canada’s largest oil company, Suncor Energy, has recently agreed to buy 175 driverless heavy haulers. This advancement, however, puts thousands of heavy truck operators’ jobs at risk. Both federal and provincial governments should ensure that adequate and suitable skills training and job matching programs are in place for workers who are likely to be affected by driverless vehicles.

Despite safety improvements, accident liability will also have to be addressed by government officials before fully driverless vehicles can be allowed on public roads. To highlight this, think about how a computer would handle a situation where all outcomes lead to the death or injury of one or more people. Humans make snap decisions based on ingrained instincts; computers do not have this capability. A computer must be told by the programmer how to act in each situation, implying that we need to first agree on the value of a human life so that a computer can make these decisions. Are younger lives worth more or should the computer try to save the largest number of people? Who will be considered responsible in the event of an accident?

The government of Canada, who is responsible for regulating the automotive industry, needs to start thinking about these issues today in order to make well-informed policy decisions. Red tape cannot be allowed to stand in the way of increased safety, greater economic output, and reduced emissions.


[1] Godsmark et al., (2015), “Automated Vehicles. The Coming of the Next Disruptive Technology,” The Conference Board of Canada.

[2] Ibid. Human error and imprecision can be linked to approximately 90 percent of traffic accidents and will be significantly reduced by adopting autonomous technology.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Greenblatt and Saxena, (2015), “Autonomous taxis could greatly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions of US light-duty vehicles,” Nature Climate Change.

[5] Godsmark et al., (2015), “Automated Vehicles. The Coming of the Next Disruptive Technology,” The Conference Board of Canada.

Photo Credit: chombosan, Getty Images 

Category: Infrastructure, Public Transit, Innovation