By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario — April 19, 2017 — The second annual Canadian conference on autonomous vehicles (AVs) kicked off April 19. The increasing interest in the subject of AVs was clear: larger venue, bigger name speakers, more attendees. And greater depth.
“Last year were we focused on AV 101 discussions. What is it? When will it arrive? We were talking about it at a foundational and conceptual level. We were reacting to the technology,” said an organizer. “This year we decided to turn things around. We’re exploring larger questions … how to realize the vision and how to leverage the technology.”
The event, Automated Vehicles 2017: Planning the Next Disruptive Technology, delivered what it promised. Chief Planner for the City of Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat, led off with some deep questions.
“AVs can be a part of the culture,” she says. Worries that the technology will determine the shape of the culture (rather than humans defining the pattern) are key. “Are we going to be shaped by the technology? Or will we react? Whether new technologies in our cities allow us to build out the vision of our cities is our choice,” says Keesmaat. “Do you let the infrastructure define the culture, or does the culture arrange the infrastructure?”
Keesmaat went on to talk about the dominance of the car and the dangers that a sedentary suburban lifestyle create.
“The effects have been extreme. From a quality of life and health perspective, we designed activity out of our culture. And so we’re seeing obesity becoming one of the critical diseases. This is directly linked to how we move around in our cities,” says Keesmaat. “The distances that were created when the suburbs were laid out meant it was no longer possible to walk to work. Cars take up a lot of space. It’s physics. If everyone has one, we need a terrific amount of space. A choice was made to plan around the car as the organization protocol of our everyday lives.”
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau followed Keesmaat, arriving at the event in a Chevy Volt after a visit to a GM facility earlier that morning. He echoed the “planning for disruption” theme, noting that he had asked the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to look into the various impacts of AVs.
“We need to be ready for connected and automated vehicles. It’s why I asked the committee to look at this question,” said Garneau. “Disruptive technologies present huge challenges for the industries affected, the businesses displaced and the governments that need to regulate them.”
Garneau related some interesting observations about the introduction of the car to Canada and possible parallels to the current situation with autonomous vehicles. He noted that in 1900 there were only around 1,000 here in Canada. “They were high-tech toys for the rich,” says Garneau. By 1913 there were 50,000 of them and governments were bewildered about what to do about them.
Some jurisdictions tried to ban cars altogether. In 1908, PEI voted to ban all vehicles from the island. The ban was eventually softened to allow the use of cars on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Eventually, of course, it was lifted altogether. Governments accepted that vehicles were not a passing fad. Parking spaces had to be created and traffic laws enacted. The essential point is that no one predicted in 1900 what would occur just a decade and a half later.
Garneau closed on the safety aspect: “Most accidents are caused by human error, in theory, if you can reduce the human factor, you can reduce the number of accidents,” he said.
Automated Vehicles 2017: Planning the Next Disruptive Technology continues April 20 at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto.