A man in a blue jacket standing in front of a mountain.

Sep 10, 2020

5 min. read

A decade ago, a self-driving car seemed like the stuff of science fiction. But today, autonomous vehicles are being tested on roads across North America–and quite possibly in city near you. Here are six things you should know about a technology that some experts say could change the world.

1. Autonomous vehicles are already on the road

Jurisdictions across North America, including TorontoMontreal and Richmond B.C., have given carmakers and tech companies the green light to test some form of autonomous vehicles on designated roads. Ground zero for many of those trials is California. More than 60 companies, including Tesla, Apple and Google’s Waymo division, have permission to run self-driving cars in the Golden State. Together, their vehicles drove nearly 4.6 million kilometres in 2019.

2. Autonomous cars could help cut down on collisions

More than 90 per cent of collisions are caused by human error. While autonomous vehicles won’t be perfect, the hope is they’ll be much better than people at following the rules of the road. “If you could have technology reduce collisions and deaths on our roads, that would be a great thing,” says Teresa Di Felice, the assistant vice president of government and community relations with CAA South Central Ontario.

3. Depending on its age, your car probably has some technology

Will your vehicle tell you if there’s a car in your blind spot? Does it warn you if you’re leaving your lane? Will it brake if you forget to? If so, welcome to the future–your car has at least some autonomous technology. It’s best to think of autonomy on a sliding scale. There are six recognized levels of automation, ranging from none, where a human is completely in control, to full automation, where a car can drive itself anywhere, at any time in any weather.

4.  Full automation could still be years away from becoming mainstream

While companies have tested fully autonomous cars, including some without steering wheels and pedals, obstacles exist. The technology still needs to be refined, as some high-profile collisions have shown.  Governments will need to invest in infrastructure, from lane markings to parking signs, so self-driving cars can safely navigate the streets. And societies will need to figure out thorny issues around security and data privacy. “In order to make a fully-autonomous-vehicle world a reality, there are major, major hurdles,” Di Felice says. “Is it going to be 2030? Is it going to be 2040? I don’t think anybody can really say.”

5. Canadian winters are a real problem

So far, most self-driving cars have been tested in fair weather places like California and Arizona. The vehicles will likely have a much tougher time dealing with the snow and ice of a Canadian winter, says Jonathan English, the director of transportation policy at the Toronto Regional Board of Trade. “The main obstacle to universal [autonomous vehicle] use at this point tends to centre around weather.” Snow can confuse, or even blind, the sensors on a self-driving car. It can also obscure lane markings on which autonomous vehicles rely. In really bad weather, cars also might not be able to tell how deep snow is or differentiate the road from the sidewalk.

6. Self-driving technology could fundamentally change our world

Since the highway-building boom starting in the 1950s, which ushered in the era of the car, little has changed in how North Americans get around, English says. But he believes fully autonomous vehicles could spark a seismic shift in transportation.  Without a driver, the price of ride sharing services could plummet and owning a car might not make financial sense anymore. Freed up from the responsibility of driving, people might be willing to commute for longer and be more productive while they’re on the road. Self-driving, connected cars could use the road more efficiently than human drivers, spacing themselves perfectly and reducing congestion. And autonomous vehicles could open up a world of possibilities for people who can’t drive, like the elderly and those with disabilities.

Keep reading

Visit caasco.com/autonomous for more information about autonomous vehicles.

Image credit: iStock.com/petovarga

Share this article: