With last month’s announcement that the Toronto pilot for driverless vehicles will launch in Scarborough’s West Rouge neighbourhood by September 2020, it looks like self-driving cars are just around the corner.
My car will drop me off at work, drop my dog Grace off at her walker, head out to the airport for my non-driving mom, take her home, then up by itself to CNIB on Bayview, and shuttle a visually impaired person to their appointments.
Except for the first sentence, the car is driving a person (or dog) who cannot take control of the car if needed, no matter which roads or bad weather (specifically snow, much more important in Toronto than in Arizona). This is Level 5 self-driving, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. It will be a disruptive technology, with implications for transit, a host of industries like insurance, real estate and millions of GTA commuters.
It is not imminent: decades away, according to some. Some optimists see full autonomy shortly, but one random guy said last year that “he doesn’t think the industry will ever be able to drive at any time of year in any weather and any condition.” Another said that Level 5 will only work “in very few cities. And even then, the technology will only work in ideal weather conditions.” The optimists are more fun, but ignore the quotes above at your peril: they come from the CEO of Waymo, which drove more self-driving miles in California in 2018 than every other company combined, and the leader of driverless technology at VW, the world’s No.1 automaker.
When (or if?) the first commercially available Level 5 goes on sale, it will be expensive, and take years to become affordable enough for mass adoption. We need to keep worrying about transit and commutes and parking for decades: self-driving cars will not solve those problems for us for decades, and may not solve them at all (fully automated vehicles might be so convenient that they pull commuters out of transit and onto roadways, for example).
There are broader economic impacts for Toronto and southern Ontario from driverless cars. Our region is behind only Michigan in term of North American vehicle manufacturing, and has six of the top 10 global manufacturers. We have more than 200 auto parts manufacturers producing $7 billion in revenues annually. Combined, they had more than 100,000 direct jobs in 2018 and represented 19 per cent of Ontario’s manufacturing GDP. But U.S. auto sales are in a slump, down two per cent in the first half of 2019.
I have a perfectly good five-year-old car, and had no plans to buy a new one. Until I rented a Level 2 car this summer: the lane keeping was great, distance-keeping cruise control impressive, and the automatic emergency braking made me think “this could save my life.”
Although full Level 5 cars are not ready for drivetime, Level 2 is here now, and Level 3 will be available shortly. They are partly autonomous, and will make the “Don Valley Parking lot” less horrible than it is now: With Level 3, drivers will be able to look at their phones, watch videos or even work on a laptop. The only requirement will be that the driver be ready to take the wheel with five to 10 seconds notice (so no sleeping, drinking or drugs).
These cars will be much safer, with all kinds of automatic braking and collision avoidance features. In 1998, there were 19,329 motor vehicle traffic serious injuries and fatalities in Canada, and that number was down 39 per cent to 11,801 in 2017, due in part to new safety technologies such as those found on partly automated cars. By the mid-2020s look for that number to fall further as North Americans upgrade to new, safer, high tech cars at Level 2 and 3.
Another industry that needs to think decades in advance is real estate. Condos and office towers need parking lots today, and will for many years. But by 2050, maybe a smaller lot will be needed, and almost nothing by 2060 or so? It isn’t about choosing a big parking structure or none at all, it is about building a flexible structure. Structures with flat floors (and either helical ramps or sloping ramps) are much easier to repurpose than those with sloping or staggered floors.
Although it’s a long road ahead to reach full self-driving, for some industries planning ahead will put them in the driver’s seat…as it were.
Duncan Stewart is the director of research for tech, media and telecom for Deloitte Canada.