Federal government has role to play in facilitating autonomous vehicles: Garneau

MONTREAL, Que. – Canada is on the brink of an automotive revolution, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the introduction of the automobile.

That was the opinion of Marc Garneau, Canada’s transportation minister, when speaking this morning at Michelin’s Movin’ On conference on mobility and sustainability. Garneau pointed out that in 1908, not everyone was happy about the arrival of cars in this country. In fact, in P.E.I., cars were initially banned, and eventually allowed to operate on only Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

The ban was partially lifted in 1913, and prohibition there was fully lifted in 1919. But opponents to the automobile were fearful of the noise, smoke, and collisions cars brought.

Garneau said similar fear today over autonomous vehicles must be overcome. In the early 1900s, government played a role in facilitating automobiles.

“Roads had to be paved, parking spaces created, traffic laws enacted and drivers educated to take more care,” Garneau said of those early days. “The automobile brought us an unprecedented degree of freedom, comfort and convenience.”

Likewise, government must now play a role in accommodating autonomous vehicles.

“We are going to see smart vehicles on smart roads in smart cities,” Garneau said. “We are going to see seamlessly integrated multimodal systems with traffic flow management systems to optimize efficiency.”

Garneau acknowledged, “Realistically, these new vehicles will bring new challenges, including some we can’t even see clearly right now. For example, how will we manage the transition from non-automated to fully-automated vehicles when both types of cars are on the roads? It will be as confusing as the time when horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles competed for the right of way.”

Garneau said autonomous vehicles will have to be able to respond to unforeseen circumstances, such as cargo falling on the road or wildlife on the highway.

“What is government’s role in all this?” Garneau queried. “It is our duty to have a modern and efficient road system which will safety integrate novel technologies.”

To this end, Garneau said the feds have already presented a strategic plan for the future of transportation, dubbed Transport 2030. It is also tasking Transport Canada with updating regulations and infrastructure to accommodate autonomous vehicles and new transport technologies.

The government has also invested $1.26 billion into a five-year strategic innovation fund.

“Connected and automated vehicles will have many benefits besides convenience,” he said. “Most accidents are caused by human error, so in theory, if you reduce the human factor, you will reduce the number of accidents and as minister of transport, this concerns me greatly. It will also improve efficiency and environmental performance, and has the promise of reducing congestion and therefore pollution.”

Among these emerging technologies Garneau touched on, was truck platooning, which he said has the potential to reduce fuel consumption by up to 14%.

“That’s important when you consider almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada are produced by the transportation sector and most of those emissions come from cars and trucks,” he said.

Garneau also said the federal government, along with its provincial and territorial counterparts, will do more to promote the use of zero emissions vehicles.

“Putting more zero emissions vehicles on our roads is essential in our drive towards the decarbonization of transportation and clean roads future,” he said, noting today only one in 200 cars bought is emissions-free, largely because they’re more expensive.

“A national zero emissions vehicle strategy is an essential element of our decarbonization of transportation,” he said.

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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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