I vaguely remember a TV car commercial in the 1970s — for Buick, I think — that touted a model so advanced it "almost drives itself."
The first thing I thought of was that joke about the couple with a new RV who put on the cruise control and went to the back to have a drink.
But apparently we are just a few years away from being able to buy a vehicle that does indeed drive itself. Or maybe not, because apparently Canada is far from ready for it.
Major automakers have jumped on the self-driving car bandwagon as Google racks up hundreds of thousands of miles on its experimental prototype, based initially on a Toyota Prius.
Self-driving vehicles are touted as being safer because the car's computers can react more quickly to an emergency situation, and a potential boon to improving traffic flow in congested roads.
Modern vehicles are already highly computerized and some can already do things like keep the car from wandering out of its lane and brake automatically if the vehicle is closing to fast on the car in front. The new Mercedes Benz S-Class even allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel at low speeds.
Nissan and General Motors have said they'll introduce autonomously operated vehicles by the end of this decade, according to the Toronto Star.
But transportation expert Paul Godsmark says the federal and provincial government aren't moving very quickly to prepare for these cars.
"The model that government likes to use in transportation — in trying and testing it and doing the research — we don't have time for that," Godsmark, a former highway designer, told The Canadian Press. "It just won't happen smoothly as we want it to."
"This technology is going to hit us a bit like a tidal wave. And if we're ready, great. And if we're not, tough. It's coming anyway."
Some U.S. states, notably Nevada and California, are developing regulations for autonomous vehicles but not much is happening north of the border.
A spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of Transportation told CP via email that the province is working with Transport Canada to evaluate the technology and monitor developments but no legislation is in the works.
"The ministry reviews all new vehicle types and technology to determine whether they are safe for Ontario's roads as well as how safely they can be integrated with other vehicles and pedestrians," Bob Nichols said.
The same goes for Alberta, CP said.
As for Ottawa, Transport Canada spokeswoman Andrea Moritz told CP the department is working with experts to develop standards for systems that relieve or assist drivers.
"Transport Canada would permit the importation of a driverless vehicle, provided that it has been certified by the manufacturer as complying with the safety standards that apply to the vehicle class," Moritz said via email.
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Godsmark suggests governments get their ducks in a row sooner rather than later because the advent of autonomous vehicles raise a number of legal issues.
For instance, could someone who doesn't have a driver's licence legally operate one? What about allowing a child to ride in one without an adult?
Draft regulations in California require a licensed driver to sit behind the wheel in case the system fails.
And if you're the nominal operator of the vehicle, are you free to text or play with your tablet, or do you still need to pay attention to the road?
As well, who is responsible if a self-driven vehicle is involved in an accident?
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Godsmark told CP automakers and government seem to prefer a step-by-step approach to the introduction of automated systems, the model used to deploy other technological improvements.
But the pace of development may be taken out of their hands. Godsmark said the work by Google means someone in Canada could conceivably equip a vehicle to drive by itself soon.
"This … represents a potential paradigm shift, because the very fact that a car can reposition itself without anyone at the wheel suddenly changes how the road system operates, how we use it, where we live, how we live, where we work, how we work," he said.