Driving Policy Change: Are Governments Ready For Automated Vehicles?

Madeline Rowland

At first glance it may seem as though the car, arguably one of the most significant innovations of the twentieth century, has remained relatively unchanged since its creation. Minor improvements, such as four-wheel drive or blind-spot sensors, have streamlined the driving experience, but despite these incremental improvements, the fundamental relationship between the driver and car has remained the same.

However, after decades of persistent inertia, emerging Automated Vehicle (AV) technology is poised to disrupt transportation as we know it. The ramifications of AVs will stretch far beyond our roads, and will impact everything from health care, to social policy, to employment—the question is, are governments ready to respond to these impacts?

What are Automated Vehicles?


AVs are self-driving vehicles capable of navigating their surrounding environment using a combination of sensor, software, GPS and artificial intelligence technology. AVs take existing technology like automatic parallel parking and adaptive cruise control to their logical conclusion by eliminating the need for the driver altogether.

While this technology may seem futuristic, special purpose AVs are already commercially available. For example, companies operating in the Alberta oil sands are increasingly replacing traditional heavy haulers with driverless trucks. Leading car manufacturers like BMW, Ford, and GM have integrated AVs into their fleets, and Tesla aims to launch their driverless car next year. We are witnessing a veritable race to make driverless cars available to the average consumer.

What are the Policy Implications?

Clearly, the mainstream launch of the driverless car is not far off. Governments will soon be embroiled in a race of their own–to modernize policies that keep up with the changing transportation landscape. A few areas in which we will see huge policy implications:

Safety and Accidents

Many have been quick to point out that AVs have the potential to dramatically decrease accident rates, especially those caused by human error. However, this assumes full adoption of automated vehicles. What about the far more likely scenario of mixed driving, where AVs must interact with regular vehicles operated by humans? Even if we imagine an accident scenario involving two AVs, who will be held liable? The passenger, the owner, or the manufacturer? Governments must consider these questions when designing new regulatory frameworks.

Employment and the Economy

AVs will likely have a mixed impact on the economy, given their GDP boosting potential, and the likelihood that they will disrupt the labour market. With the widespread adoption of driverless cars, Canada’s 300,000 truck drivers and 50,000 taxi drivers face an uncertain future. Reductions in accidents would also render parts of the insurance, legal, and auto repair industries obsolete in their current form. The extent to which AVs will hurt or help the economy is directly related to how well governments and industries plan for their arrival.

Environment and Land Use

The environmental impact of AVs is unclear. The massive reduction in crashes  promised by the advent of AVs would mean that cars will require less cumbersome safety equipment, thus reducing their weight and increasing fuel efficiency. The use of artificial intelligence also enables smoother acceleration and more efficient navigation, resulting in less wasted fuel. Despite this potential positive environmental impact, there is also the risk that automation could dramatically increase the distance individuals will drive on the whole. When you eliminate the wasted time and frustration associated with driving, people may be willing to spend more time in a car.

AVs will also impact land use planning. Just as the rise of the car led to the creation of suburbs during the twentieth century, AVs may perpetuate sprawl by decreasing the costs associated with living far from work and amenities. Not only will transportation for those living in low-density areas become cheaper, the productivity cost of driving for hours will be lessened, as drivers will be able to engage in other activities during their commute.

What’s next for government?

The impact of driverless cars is far wider than the few examples discussed here. AVs will impact countless other policy areas, including social policy, welfare, accessibility, and infrastructure.

Governments need to approach the regulation of AVs with a spirit of experimentation and an eyes-open understanding of their potential costs and benefits.

Unfortunately, Canada’s current regulatory and legislative frameworks are insufficient. The national Motor Vehicle Safety Act does not even allow for the use of vehicles without steering columns and pedals. To date, no province except Ontario has introduced legislation that allows for the testing of AV’s on its roads.

Governments need to approach the regulation of AVs with a spirit of experimentation and an eyes-open understanding of their potential costs and benefits. If we wait until automated vehicle technology is perfected and made mainstream before we begin to respond, we risk falling miles behind other jurisdictions. Ontario’s pilot project on automated vehicles is a promising start. Other provinces, municipalities, and the federal government need to jump on board or risk being unprepared for the not-so-distant future of driving.

Madeline Rowland is a 2017 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in International Development and Political Economy from the University of Guelph. Her main areas of academic interest include government transformation, social policy, urban issues, and international affairs. When she is not in the library, she can be found incessantly reading the news, watching Seinfeld reruns or eating donuts.