Preparing for a Driverless Future

by Markus O'Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

Future dreams of self-driving vehicles took a hit this week as the City of Toronto announced the end of its road testing of the West Rouge Automated Shuttle before a single member of the public was able to climb on board. Despite the setback, Automated Vehicles (AVs) are coming fast and that the City needs to be ready.

The City's shuttle pilot, launched in 2020, was designed to test a self-driving (automated) bus that would provide free transportation services from the east-end West Rouge neighbourhood to the Rouge Hill Go Station. Though extensive on-street testing took place on local and arterial roads in mixed weather conditions, it had not yet been deemed ready for public use. Early this year, the shuttle provider, Local Motors, shut down their company, effectively bringing the pilot to an end.

But the future is coming fast. In parts of Phoenix you can summon a fully driverless taxi today. They're running in San Francisco too – though under California law they still require someone in the front seat to monitor the trip. Providers like Waymo have recently started testing vehicles in colder climates in large urban centres such as New York City, while GM, Tesla and Google are other companies planning full AV services within the next two to three years.

Proponents argue that AVs can virtually eliminate driver error, currently blamed for the vast majority of road fatalities. AVs can be spaced more closely together, improving road capacity. They will be more accessible to people of a variety of income levels creating better access to jobs. Travel is more affordable if you're not paying a driver.

But are we ready for this kind of monumental shift? Concerns remain about how well AVs react to other drivers that don't follow the rules of the road. Diver error isn't going to disappear in a few short years. Legal questions about accountability and liability remain. Others worry about the loss of jobs in the economy as busses, trucks or even tractors or snow plows become more fully automated.

Regardless, Toronto needs to be ready for this future as it becomes a reality. Residents and businesses will demand it based on economics, and the transformation could be as dramatic as the shift from traditional taxis to ride share operators like Uber or Lyft.

A strategy was adopted by Council in 2019 creating opportunities for research and development. It also began reviewing anticipated impacts such as deliveries, transit use, land use planning, parking demand. The data collected during West Rouge pilot will support future decision-making and planning for AVs in transit and our overall transportation network. This work must continue to be prepared for a future that is nearly here.