It’s 2025, and self-driving cars are available, safe, and only cost a few thousand dollars. Governments have had to move quickly to pass legislation regulating the vehicles. Now, the hour-long commute is a stress-free breeze and paying for parking is no longer needed as the car simply drives itself back home.
But due to the increase in vehicles and trips, the roads are too crowded with a mix of self-driving and normal cars. The government introduces policy to combat congestion like cordon pricing, where there is a fee to enter the downtown core, and an empty vehicle charge, which makes travel more expensive with self-driving cars.
This is “Part IV: Attack of the AVs,” one of four scenarios predicting the future of autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. The scenarios are the results of four months of research led by a group of students at Ryerson University.
“Planning for Autonomous Vehicles: Imagining Alternative Futures” is a project from a group of seven students in the urban development graduate program at Ryerson. The group was retained by the Transportation Services division of the City of Toronto to explore the potential impacts of AVs in the GTHA.
The goal of the project was to explore and identify the conditions necessary for the adoption of AVs. They presented their findings to the public for the first time on Dec. 5, and to a panel of three expert judges. The group identified four key conditions that will influence the deployment of AVs in the GTHA: technology, safety, economics, and attitudes. Using those conditions, they constructed real-life scenarios to explore the implications in a way that is aimed to be engaging and accessible.
One of the students, Vincent Racine, acted as the project manager. For him, the biggest realization from their research was the power that the public will have over the unfolding of AV technology. “No matter how much investment the government puts into this technology, no matter how much they regulate this technology, it will never unfold to its full potential without people being on board,” says Racine.
Lisa Orchard believes there’s still a question of how much energy should be put towards AVs from a planning and policy perspective in the context of all the other current challenges around transportation. Orchard is a senior planning and policy advisor at Metrolinx. She’s spent 15 years in urban and transportation planning, and has seen the conversation around AVs evolve rapidly, pushed by industry and technological developments. While Orchard is excited by the potential of the technology, she thinks that the benefits won’t be accessible to many people
“It’s even more important than ever to really make sure that we have a strong public transit system that’s funded adequately, that we support active transportation and support accessible travel modes,” says Orchard.
Ontario announced the first groups that will take part in the AV pilot program last month. The University of Waterloo and BlackBerry will be two of the first to test their AV technology on public roads in Canada. But not everyone is convinced. Jeffrey Takeuchi is a recent graduate of the urban and regional planning program at Ryerson. Personally, he wouldn’t use AVs because he prefers have total control of the car when he’s driving, citing attentiveness and safety as concerns.
“You can manually take off the controls but you won’t be able to do that the split second you’re about to hit someone,” he says. “It takes a few seconds to figure that out.”
Before working on this project, Yvonne Verlinden knew little about AVs and was surprised to learn how drastic the impact of this technology could be. After completing an undergraduate degree in English literature and history, she set off on a year-long bicycle tour across Europe, Asia, and Australia. It was all this time on the road that got Verlinden interested in how they were built, and eventually about AVs. “They could change our streets for the better or for the worse,” she says. “It could go either way.”
She emphasizes that the unknown potential and impact of AV technology for everyone makes it even more important for the public to be involved in discussions around its future usage. “That’s when you need to bring in Lady Gaga and World of Warcraft and put the common understandings, the common pieces of the world into your research to make it approachable to people, to make it something that people can connect with so that they can put themselves in that scenario,” she says.
As for the reasoning behind the Star Wars theme? “It’s all about the future and it’s all about new technologies,” says Racine. “It’s all about venturing yourself into these new adventures.”