Can we trust driverless cars’ safety standards?

We should be asking questions before welcoming driverless vehicles to our streets

Who wants to be stuck behind a car that isn’t moving? Or a too-timid driver who steadfastly refuses to enter an intersection under any circumstances, blocking traffic?

Yes, it sounds irritating.

How about crossing the street in front of a moving car, in a snowstorm, unsure if the car will stop for the traffic light telling you it’s your turn to walk?

Now, imagine if those cars had no drivers.

That driverless cars are coming down the pike is inevitable. We have been promised they won’t be a threat to other drivers, and all but guarantee safer roads for everyone else – pedestrians, cyclists, commercial vehicles and first responders. We have been assured of how liberating this technology will be to seniors who cannot drive, as if they couldn’t be  passengers as things are.

Toronto city council has climbed into Google’s passenger seat, it seems. From Uber’s aggressive approach to its transportation business – it’s partly funded by Google – to the “smart” neighbourhood planned by the tech behemoth for Toronto’s eastern central waterfront, to the deployment of self–driving vehicles on Toronto streets last August, our city has become a veritable incubator for Google endeavours and data-gathering.

Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government has proposed accelerating its 10-year plan to phase in driverless vehicles. Her government is even open to platooning, in which commercial vehicles form artificial-intelligence controlled convoys.

Nationally, a Senate subcommittee has expressed concerns about safety precautions and cyber-security issues such as hacking the driverless cars which already communicate with each other.

Ultimately, these cars will be programmed either to stop for obstructions or to make life or death decisions on our roads.

There are related concerns. Will irate pedestrians, cyclists and road-raging drivers be able to vandalize driverless cars, rendering them dangerous or immovable until the vehicles are taken somewhere for repairs? Will cars with AI designed for suburban America have trouble navigating Toronto streets with its aggressive drivers and often scofflaw pedestrians and cyclists?

While there may be drivers on stand-by in Toronto’s self-driving vehicles, the goal is to have AI take over all aspects of operation. As it stands, there are difficulties associated with the human-AI partnership behind the wheel. Ian Reagan, representing the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an American organization, said there have been problems when “drivers can fail to notice when systems reach their limits, and can have trouble retaking control of the vehicle, especially in emergency situations.”

Just because driverless cars are on their way, doesn’t mean we are obliged to rush them to our streets. Following the brief Waymo–Uber civil trial last week, emails surfaced featuring ousted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick claiming “we need … to take all the shortcuts we can” and “I just see this as a race we need to win” with regard to getting Uber’s self-driving cars to market before the competition.

Ontarians don’t owe Uber anything. Let’s not join the rush simply because Silicon Valley millionaires want us to hurry.