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B.C. bans self-driving vehicles on its roads

Earlier this month, changes to B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act quietly came into effect, prohibiting the use of fully automated self-driving vehicles.

Transport Canada doesn’t currently permit the purchase or import of automated vehicles

A car with sensors above it marked 'Uber' lies parked, with two people in front of it.

Earlier this month, changes to B.C.'s Motor Vehicle Act quietly came into effect, prohibiting the use of fully automated self-driving vehicles.

The new legislation restricts someone from driving Level 3 or higher automated vehicles, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), and also prohibits the use of features that cause a vehicle to operate as a Level 3 or higher automated vehicle.

According to the society's classification, which ranges from Level 0 to Level 5, a motorist is not driving a car which is above Level 3 automation — even if they're in the driver's seat.

"These new regulations will keep people safer on our roads," said Rob Fleming, Minister of Transportation, in a statement that announced the updated legislation.

According to the SAE, Level 0 has no automation, while levels 1 and 2 have driver-assisted technology — popular features found in many new cars like automatic braking and lane assist.

But drivers can't take a nap or catch the latest episode of their favourite television series. Levels 0-2 require the driver to be focused on the road and ready to respond, if needed.

Meanwhile, levels 3-5 of automation don't require a person to drive the car at all.

"Drivers and manufacturers are expected to comply with the legislation – this includes driving with due care and attention at all times," said a spokesperson for the Transportation Ministry in a statement.

Transport Canada says an automated vehicle uses sensors, controllers, an onboard computer and software to drive the car independently.

Anyone caught driving a fully automated vehicle in B.C. could face penalties of up to $2,000 and six months in jail.

EV enthusiasts mixed on automation

The new regulation won't have much of an impact on the roads, since Transport Canada doesn't currently permit the purchase of automated vehicles in Canada.

It's responsible for regulating the safety of new and imported vehicles, like automated driving systems, adding that companies "must demonstrate that the vehicle or vehicle equipment complies with all existing safety regulations and standards."

Self-driving vehicles are usually electric and B.C. drivers are particularly fond of electric vehicles (EVs).

B.C. Hydro says there were more than 230,000 EVs on B.C. roads as of January 2024, with the utility saying B.C. has the highest adoption rate of EVs in North America.

Still, Bob Porter, president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, says excitement over automation is split among his members.

"Many people have really embraced it, but I think it's going to be a slow gradual experience [for others]," he said.

Porter has tested the Level 2 technology, and he admits letting go of control behind the wheel can be a scary feeling.

Overall, he says he supports the province's decision to ban fully automated cars, adding that public safety is paramount.

Still, he says he believes it's only a matter of time until the technology improves and automated vehicles hit the open road.

'Autopilot' feature controversial

For many, self-driving vehicles are synonymous with automotive brands like Tesla, whose cars come equipped with an "autopilot" feature.

Tesla's autopilot includes features like traffic-aware cruise control and auto-steering, which can match the speed of surrounding traffic and steer within a marked lane. However, it is only classified as Level 2 automation.

Tesla's autopilot feature has also been linked to its fair share of controversy. The company recently settled a lawsuit that alleged a Tesla engineer was killed after the autopilot feature caused his Model X to swerve into a highway barrier.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched more than 40 investigations into accidents involving Tesla automated driving systems that have resulted in 23 deaths.

The future of self-driving

PAVE Canada, a coalition of auto industry bodies which says it aims to educate Canadians about automated vehicle technology, says self-driving vehicles have many potential benefits, including reducing fatalities and creating a more efficient and sustainable transportation supply.

"Self-driving technology — which doesn't text and drive, which doesn't drink and drive, which doesn't drive drowsy or distracted — has the potential to greatly enhance road safety and save lives," it said in a statement.

However, it adds that "voluminous testing is imperative."

For now, the timeline for when self-driving vehicles will be welcomed in B.C. — and Canada — is unclear.

The province says further testing and policy development is necessary "before Level 3 or higher automated vehicles are considered safe."

While it's currently prohibited, B.C. says it could be allowed in the future, either by provincial regulation or through a pilot project.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joel Ballard is a reporter with the CBC in Vancouver. You can reach him at joel.ballard@cbc.ca

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