Friday, 10 May 2013

Who Will Champion the Cause of Autonomous Vehicles?

I have just returned this week from presenting at the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) where the subject of autonomous vehicles was mentioned by each of the speakers in the opening session.  Following my presentation it then came up for discussion under the general heading of emerging issues in the three main committees.  Autonomous vehicles were probably 'the' hot topic of the Annual Meeting.

There was considerable interest in my presentation and a huge variation in familiarity with the technology and the implications by the attendees.  Hopefully by attending I have helped some to improve their understanding of autonomous vehicles and challenged some others on just how broad the implications could be on surface transportation and society as a whole.

My CCMTA presentation can be downloaded here.

The only reason that I could make it to the incredible city of Iqaluit, Nunavut, which has no roads to it and is the closest that I have ever been to the arctic circle, is through the very generous sponsorship from CCMTA for the speakers.  There are a number of conferences and annual meetings that I would really like to attend and speak at this year, but resources are simply not available.  Yet surely this subject, which has the potential to have the biggest impact on society since the internet, should command much greater attention and have funds flowing into it already?

So, my question is, applicable in every jurisdiction: 
"Who will champion the cause of autonomous vehicles?"

The CCMTA are possibly now the most aware organization with national influence in Canada, and they have a vital role in bringing order to the way that vehicles are licensed and used on the roads and how the roads operate safely and efficiently.  But, and this is the 'but', the implications of the autonomous vehicle when they are certified safe to drive unmanned go way beyond our road networks.  They will impact on almost every aspect of daily life and affect almost every government ministry and department and impact on so many businesses.

My hope is that the CCMTA will recognize that this subject, although it falls firmly within their remit of license and regulation, is also potentially 'above their pay-grade' and therefore pass their observations up through the chain of command to the Minister of Transportation and hopefully the Prime Minister.

I do not see how we can begin to address the massive societal change that unmanned autonomous vehicle capability will bring unless we use joined-up-thinking and involve decision-makers representing the key stakeholders in government, business and society.

To that end it is very encouraging that the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation is holding a hearing on 15 May titled: "The Road Ahead: Advanced Vehicle Technology and its Implications".

But even now we are making decisions on major public transportation projects and committing funds for projects that will take decades to pay for, with no cognisance of the impacts of autonomous vehicles in possibly as little as five years time.

We simply cannot act soon enough if we want to make best use of public funds and tax-payers interests in my opinion.  So, who will champion the cause of autonomous vehicles and ensure that our limited resources are used as wisely as possible?