Self-Driving Vehicles Could Impact Edmonton Strategy

Self-driving taxis and buses may be coming to Edmonton sooner than expected and are prompting even die-hard LRT enthusiasts to rethink their position.

“It’s a question I continue to struggle with,” said Coun. Andrew Knack, who’s been lobbying to extend the Valley Line LRT west when the route to Mill Woods is complete. 

One of the first applications for self-driving technology may be dual-mode buses, according to a consultant’s report debated at committee Wednesday, where a bus could be manually driven around a neighbourhood, then follow in fully automated mode behind a lead bus to head downtown.

That would free up drivers and increase service, making bus-rapid transit a more flexible and adaptable option than LRT. It would be a train on wheels.

Other applications would have far more revolutionary implications. Uber is hoping self-driving taxis will push down prices to the point where many people won’t buy their own cars. But that could also decrease ridership for any public transit option.

“If this is five-years-from-now technology, could it render mass transit obsolete?” said Knack. “There’s a possibility. … We don’t want to build $20-billion worth of LRT and realize that we only needed a little bit to get some of the main connections done.”

“We need to be prepared for it right away because chances are, it might happen sooner than we expect,” he added. “This technology is going to completely transform the way we build a city.”

Edmonton is working with the province and University of Alberta to study what impact automated vehicles will have on cities. Officials are also exploring a pilot project, hoping to run a low-speed automated shuttle option on private land, likely within a city-owned facility.

They also intend to add consideration of self-driving technology when planning any new infrastructure projects, and with the motion passed at committee Wednesday, they’ll create a cross-departmental working group on the subject.

There are still many questions on when and how automated vehicles will enter the market. City officials told the committee fully automated vehicles on public roads could be here in five years, at the earliest, with 90 per cent of cars using the technology 18 to 30 years later, as society sorts through the legal and ethical ramifications. 

Paul Godsmark, a consultant with St. Albert-based Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, told councillors the timelines could be much shorter than that, suggesting automated vehicles could dominate traffic by 2026.

Google, Uber, Ford and others are investing heavily in this, he said. “The mobility sector is a $10-trillion sector … Uber has basically said they’d go out of business if they don’t have driverless vehicles first.”

Godsmark expects driverless vehicles to change transportation into a service sector, with more people using driverless Uber vehicles than owning an automated vehicle themselves. He expects to see that roll out city by city across the continent, starting in the south where climate conditions are easier. 

“We’re heading for massive disruption,” Godsmark said, pointing to the truck, taxi and bus drivers who would be out of a job and other ripple effects in the economy.

The city report, written by Antonio Loro Consulting, said automated vehicles could increase urban sprawl and traffic congestion if private driverless vehicles increase the amount of time people are willing to spend commuting.

It could decrease sprawl and congestion if transit providers adopt the technology first and use it to greatly improve service, or if cities charge private drivers for the use of the road.

Fully automated vehicles could increase traffic safety, since 75 to 95 per cent of crashes are due to human error, said the report.

Their remote sensing systems can track multiple moving objects. Some systems are better than others at seeing through snow or rain.

Story Tags:  AlbertaCanadaEdmontonInfrastructureInnovationMobilityTransportationUrban Planning