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5Q: Barrie Kirk on the (very near) future for driverless cars

Andrew Seale
Barrie Kirk

Supposing Barrie Kirk gets it wrong and there is no driverless car future, he could certainly have a career in narrating BBC documentaries.

The ‎Executive Director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence (CAVCOE) – a think tank launched last year to study the impact of driverless – has an Attenborough-esque cadence when he speaks, describing the different evolutionary paths of AVs, as he calls them, like he’s reading the pages of Darwin’s journals.

He’s precise, surrounding every lofty statement with references to the studies to underwrite his predictions. For Kirk, it’s not a question of how, let alone when – he’s already started to calculate the aftermath of a world built around automated vehicles.

“The first generation is here now,” says Kirk. “If you buy a Mercedes S Class – they have an early version of automated technology that will keep you in the right lane and use intelligent cruise control to keep you a certain distance from the car in front, braking if you get too close.”

He also points to the Suncor’s fully automated trucks the company uses in the oil sands. Sure, it’s private property so the risks may be a little bit lower, but his point is valid – driverless vehicles have seen no shortage of headlines from automated features creeping into 2015 models to slow moving electric vehicles like Google has been testing out.

We sat down with Kirk to discuss the creepiness of driverless vehicles, who will pick up the insurance tab if there’s an accident with no driver and the unintended side effects on organ donations.

I’ve got to be honest Barrie, it almost creeps me out a bit – the notion of driverless vehicles lurking around, waiting to give me a ride. I suspect it’d take some time for people to get used to these vehicles being there even at slow-ish speeds like 25 KM.

It’s a lot easier to design a vehicle to be autonomous on private property because you don’t have the wide range of obstacles that you have on city streets but the technology is working very well. A computer is a better driver than a person and Suncor has noticed a reduction in engine and tire wear as well as fuel economy, plus you’ve got the labour saving costs.

Who’s next to adopt after industry does?

The early adopters are going to be the young, the old and the disabled. In my generation, getting your driver’s license was a right of passage but nowadays young people are a very different demographic they’ve far less interest in driver’s licenses and far less interest in owning a car.

At the other end of the range people that aren’t comfortable driving anymore or cannot drive or are disabled – they’ll find these very useful.

So you really feel this is inevitable, this is the direction we're going?

Oh absolutely, I’ve had arguments with people and debates about exactly when, but it is coming. Google has spent tens maybe hundreds of millions of dollars on developing this and most of the mainstream car companies in the world are developing these. The technology is improving monthly. It is coming and it’s going to change our world completely.

Will Google be first at this?

It’s a different market. They will likely be first with these two seat automated taxis but they're not the only player. There’s a trial being done in the U.K. in 2015 in the city of Milton Keynes funded by the UK government to have AV taxis in the town centre. Milton Keynes will take delivery of its first one at the end of this year and they’ll be a proof of concept trial in 2015 ramping up to a hundred of these by 2017.

But when you’re talking about young people being the first adopters, especially in urban centers, I can’t help but feel a bit like you’re forgetting these are the same millennials who preach the sustainability movement and have built their culture around car sharing, cycle culture and better transit. It seems like a bit much to add driverless cars to the mix, is there a point in having both?

I think there are a lot of synergies – I think they reinforce each other. Most of us do our driving in urban areas so electric vehicles would work very well. If you’ve got charging stations that are solar powered and automated vehicles that are electric then you’ve got a very sustainable form of transportation. 

But that requires investment in infrastructure. What about of supposedly cleaner fuel supplies like liquid propane vehicles, which dropped off in the 1990s, or liquid natural gas which has failed to take off? Even charging stations seem to sit unused quite a bit.

It is a lot of investment, I agree. But the first commandment of AVs is thou shalt have no special infrastructure and the whole idea is to put as much intelligence into the vehicle as possible so that it can drive anywhere that a human can drive. The second commandment is there’s always ways you can optimize infrastructure for AVs.

How?

One example is roundabouts. Studies have shown that people are uncomfortable merging at roundabouts but AVs are a lot better. As they penetrate the market deeper, we can see a replacement of traffic signals. Parking spots too, one study in the States showed that there’s about seven parking spaces for every vehicle. It's overkill and huge amount of real estate.

What about insurance? Who picks up the tab in the event of an accident?

Well, nobody knows just yet. So much weight is put onto the driver’s records but with automated vehicles that becomes a non-issue. About 90 per cent of all traffic collisions are due in whole or in part to driver error. Let’s say we can save between 80 and 90 per cent of the traffic fatalities and collisions then the auto insurance industry will have lower payouts. There was an article by Lloyd’s of London and they speculate one model could be when you buy a new car it comes bundled with liability insurance for life. It’s no longer an individual insurance it’s more of a commercial insurance. 

What about automakers? No more of those oh-so-inspirational car commercials.

It'll be a huge difference. I think the car companies are aware of this and wish it wasn’t the way of the future but it is. It’ll also affect taxi drivers, transit and in the future, delivery vehicles. There’s already a group in the States lobbying for an automated truck corridor between Western Canada and Mexico.

It’d wipe out entire industries and probably eliminate a lot of jobs. Seems to me like there are a lot of unintended consequences of this driverless car utopia.

Without getting too gruesome here, one repercussion is health care. For young people between the ages of 18 and 30, car collisions are a major cause of death. If a young person who is otherwise healthy gets suddenly killed that’s an important source of organ and tissue donations. One person like that can benefit up to 50 living people with their eyes, hearts, kidney, skin tissue and so on and so on. So if you have a lot fewer young people dying – let’s say we can cut the death toll by 80 per cent – you’re going to have a lot fewer organs and tissues available for donations to help the living. The health care industry hasn’t started to think about that. But they’ve still got time. I can see highway capable fully autonomous vehicles in about 2017 or 2018. Some of the main car companies will be a bit slower than that but once we get to 2020 that to me is the tipping point.