Thursday, 11 April 2013

An elephant in the room?...


On Wednesday 10 April, 2013 I had the privilege of presenting at the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineering (CITE) Annual Meeting in Calgary.

I attended some really excellent presentations on the Monday and Tuesday.  Many of the projects or designs being discussed involved expensive infrastructure and long range plans looking forward 20, 30, 40 or more years.

But in almost every presentation I had the frustrating thought: 'This project or design would have looked different if the engineers and planners had been aware of the impact of autonomous vehicles'.

This resonates very much with the Freakonomics challenge of December 2012 that had spurred me on to start my ITE blog:

"Surprisingly few people, 
even within the transportation planning world, 
are talking about this pending revolution." Freakonomics

So when it was my turn to present, I started with a slide asking "Is there an elephant in the room?" and explained that I would like to move the discussion forward so that ITE members can overcome the credibility gap and progress along this scale of being:

  1. Unaware
  2. Informed
  3. Challenged
  4. Excited
  5. Active
In the rest of my presentation, which can be found here, I explained:
  • how technology is developing exponentially
  • how autonomous vehicles work
  • the level of development of autonomous vehicles
  • details of the Google Self Driving Car project in particular
  • the paradigm shift that occurs once autonomous vehicles are certified safe to travel unmanned
  • benefits and challenges
  • when we can expect this technology to arrive - 2017-2018 according to Google
  • the transformative effect it could have on transportation and society
  • a possible implementation scenario
  • possible public and private sector responses
  • challenges to transportation professionals and our projects
During the 90 minute round-table discussion that followed the three technology themed presentations we talked about many transportation issues that arise from the deployment of autonomous vehicles.  But I was not surprised to find that the discussion frequently strayed to touch on many topics outside of transportation, as those present gained a greater understanding of the magnitude of change that autonomous vehicles will bring.

I talked about unintended consequences of not planning for autonomous vehicles, as I was not aware of any jurisdiction in North America that has currently allowed for the impacts of autonomous vehicles in any of its short, medium or long range transportation plans.

But one unintended consequence was that several conference delegates came to the mic to contribute or ask a question, and basically said 'Paul, you've scared us!' - whereas I had hoped to merely 'challenge'.

Perhaps there wasn't an elephant in the room after all.  Maybe it was an 800 lb gorilla!