KRIS BONN’S LETTER OF THE LAW: Self driving cars will change our roads
The self-driving car is here. On January 1, 2016, Ontario officially allowed testing of self-driving cars on provincial roads. While we now have self-driving cars on the roads, there still needs to be a human operator with a valid driver’s licence who can take over in case of problems.
Whether this is good or bad is up for debate.
Some of the reported benefits include:
- Reduced collisions: Almost every car crash is the result of driver error - speeding, distracted driving, not paying attention, driving while tired and driving while drunk. A self-driving car eliminates driver error and will almost certainly lead to fewer collisions.
- Eases traffic congestions: Anyone driving into or out of Toronto will appreciate the reduced congestion that will come with self-driving cars. No more erratic driving, unexplained stopping or slowing and with fewer or no collisions, no need for “rubber necking” by vehicles passing a crash scene.
- Reduced need for parking: Once self-driving cars are allowed to operate without a human operator, the cars could drop a person off at a destination and return to the starting place. Or, if the stop is short, continue driving around until the person needs to be picked up.
- Increased productivity: In Ontario the average time a person spends communitng to work each day is about 60 minutes. A self-driving car would not only likely reduce the overall commuting time but would also allow the person to be productive during the commute.
There are some concerns with relinquishing control of the wheel to a computer:
- Potential for technology to go wrong: Everyone has experienced IT woes, when your computer should work but for some unexplained reason all you get is the “blue screen of death”. The consequences of a technology failure of a self-driving car could be catastrophic, resulting in serious injury or death.
- Difficult transition: If the self-driving car catches hold in Ontario there will be a transition period with self-driving cars sharing the road with human operators.
- Human drivers have established certain patterns that many rely on when driving. For example, very few vehicles drive at the 100 km/hr speed limit on the 400 series highways. The computer controlled cars may not have the ability to react to unpredictable human behaviour. The mix of self-driving cars and human drivers could potentially lead to more problems.
- Loss of privacy: Using a self-driving car means a third party would have the opportunity to track all of your movements in the car. Because your self-driving car would be receiving or communicating with data centres, your location would be potentially accessible to people or organizations who could hack into the network.
- Loss of individuality: A car is more than just a means of transportation. Many people choose vehicles to express their individuality. The Google car is plain and boring. If self-driving cars become mandatory, we would lose the thrill of driving. I for one still choose to drive a manual stick shift even though an automatic is more convenient. A self-driving car is one more step in giving up more control.
The Google car had some bad press recently. On Feb. 14, a self-driving Google car pulled out in front of a bus causing a collision between the two vehicles.
In a statement to the press, Google accepted some responsibility for the collision, citing the fact that had the Google car not moved there would not have been a collision. So while self-driving cars may reduce the number of collisions, nothing is fail safe.
Overall I welcome the initiative. I can see the massive benefits, particularly with reducing the number of injuries and deaths on our roads. But, I think it will be a number of years before self-driving cars will become mainstream on our roads.
Kristian Bonn is a personal injury lawyer and partner at Bonn Law. He grew up in Trenton, works in Belleville and Trenton and lives just over the Bay Bridge in Prince Edward County.
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