Looking back at sepia-toned photos of dusty city avenues with crowded streetcars and horse-drawn carts, there’s no doubt that the automobile changed the face of cities. But now the question is: How will new technology, particularly shared data and autonomous vehicles, change the city of the future?

“Our cities were built around carriages and horses, but we had years to adjust to the full impact of automobiles,” says Antoine Belaieff, director of regional planning with Metrolinx. “With autonomous cars, change is now coming much faster. We’ll have to be more vigilant than we’ve been in the past.”

Metrolinx is the provincial agency charged with coordinating and integrating all forms of transportation across the Toronto region, from Oshawa to Barrie to Hamilton. On March 28, Belaieff will share his vision of the future of smart transportation at RSI’s AI Sustainable Futures Summit. “As with all technologies, autonomous vehicles are not inherently good or bad,” he says. “Our outcomes will be dependent on our intent, and on the strength of our institutions.”

Consider just a few of the tensions that need to be managed, and possibly sooner than we might like:

    • Will autonomous cars – which can pick you up and whisk you to your destination – be so convenient and inexpensive that they undermine public transit? And are our streets ready to handle even more single-vehicle traffic?
    • What happens to driverless vehicles when they’re not in use? Will they drive randomly around the city, adding to gridlock? Or will they require massive new parking facilities?
    • Autonomous cars change the driving experience. If you’re not concentrating on driving, you can use the time to work, read, relax, or even sleep. Will more productive travel encourage longer commutes? If so, how far will we allow our cities to expand?
      “There’s always been a centrifugal tendency in urban growth,” Belaieff says. “People like being with each other, but they also want their own space. So there is always a balance between having space and getting to places efficiently.”
    • Autonomous operation may come first to trucking, an industry suffering from chronic driver shortages. But how will self-driving trucks share the road with passenger-driven cars?
    • How will autonomous vehicles cope with Canadian winters?

And then there are the privacy implications. Self-driving cars guided by always-on video cameras will be constantly collecting gigabytes of data regarding road conditions, the physical environment, and the behaviour of other motorists. “Combined with powerful facial-recognition technology, we are storing information about where anybody is at any time,” notes Belaieff.

Are we prepared for private organizations to buy and sell this data for the use of market research, insurance companies, or even law-enforcement agencies? How should this activity be regulated? And if offshore companies are prepared to pay Canadian drivers to provide this data, Belaieff asks, can such practices be regulated at all?

“It’s hard to regulate when so much is changing,” he notes. “It’s going to make for some very tough decision-making in Toronto.”

Belaieff is optimistic about the future, but says the conversation must begin now. “The era of autonomous vehicles will be very exciting and amazing. Getting to some places will be easier, but some places may be harder. We have to think about how to create a society in which everyone can easily get where they need to go. We have to think seriously and intensely: ‘What if? What if?’”

Antoine Belaieff will be speaking on “Automation and mobility: towards the future we want,” at the AI Sustainable Futures Summit on March 28, 2018. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.eventbrite.ca