The City of Beaumont unveiled ELAElectric Autonomous, the first Electric Autonomous Shuttle experience open to the community and will be free to ride, during a press conference in Beaumont, May 16, 2019. This will be Canada's first-ever pilot of an autonomous shuttle in mixed traffic use. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia

We’ve heard it so often, we’ve become numb.

Soon! Soon! Autonomous vehicles (AVs) will take over!

No more human-driven vehicles, no more individually owned vehicles.

We will all ride-share in a dial-a-bus-like municipal AV fleet. Soon!

Guess what?

Soon has become now!

Right now, a 12-person fully automated van – no driver, no driver’s compartment – is scurrying up and down the town of Beaumont’s main thoroughfare, sharing the road with regular traffic.

There’s plenty of leading-edge AVs out there – every major automaker has skin in this game. AV fleets are beginning to buzz around industrial sites, airports, golf courses, wherever there’s AV-only roadways.

But, in Canada, Beaumont’s ELA (an AV model manufactured in France – its name is pronounced “Ella” and it costs $450,000 Cdn.) is the first in Canada to share a public road.

ELA’s computers and software, with multiple sensors and cameras are sophisticated enough to cope with what University of Alberta AV systems expert Dr. Tony Qiu calls “uncommon” – i.e. irrational – human driving behaviour. Obviously, some insurance company has seen fit to provide some kind of bus-like insurance for ELA, owned and being tested by Calgary-headquartered bus-fleet owner/operator Pacific Western.

ELA is now pulling in and out of Beaumont traffic to pick up and drop off passengers.  ELA did this at pilot projects in Edmonton before Christmas, but not using roads shared with other traffic.

So soon has become now.

But how long before autonomous vehicles become a common sight? How long before a subscription to an AV “mobility service” will be an appealing, convenient alternative to a $40,000 car that can’t be used if the driver has had one beer too many?

Municipal politician Andrew Knack has become Edmonton City Council’s point man on transportation issues. He predicts AVs will be on Edmonton roads alongside your Toyota or Dodge within five years. He suggests human-driven cars will slowly be phased out within two decades.

Dan Finley is vice-president of bus company Pacific Western’s business development and new mobility, the company testing ELA’s technology and customer satisfaction. If every vehicle was autonomous, says Finley, today’s AV technology could now handle all the passenger/freight needs of a city. “But brand-new cities aren’t going to happen, and nobody’s going to flip a switch from driver to driver-less.”

It’ll be a slow, steady process, Finley suggests. “Yes, we went from the horse-and-buggy to automobiles within 10 years. But that was done with far less government regulation than is required today.”

The U of A’s Qiu takes a different view of the transition from driver to driverless. Every new car model – with self-parking, driver-error alerts etc. – computers and robots are incrementally protecting  drivers from their own errors. Step by step, he says, until, one year, some car manufacturer will introduce a fully driverless option.

All this will have to go hand-in-hand with new road technologies. In Beaumont, for instance, 50 Street traffic lights emit wireless go-warning-stop signals for AVs to read.

Knack thinks Edmonton, with the U of A’s  artificial-intelligence and AV-communication expertise, can lead the country in developing relatively inexpensive infrastructure or communication between the road and AVs, and in figuring out the new rules. “We were one of the first cities to develop policies enabling Uber-style ride-sharing. Our policies were copied across the country.”

Challenges abound – winter and AV technology, liability, developing a ride-sharing culture, integrating new road technology with the old. To be successful, municipal-or-privately owned AV fleet companies must provide the same convenience and efficiency as now provided by the private car. If it’s not cleaner, greener, safer, faster and cheaper, it will fail … just as the near obsolete bus-and-LRT mass transit model, with its embarrassing low and stagnant ridership, never lived up to expectations.

The transition to AVs will happen, period.

First, it’ll be driverless trucks on the Henday, then dial-up AV passenger services with driverless ELA-like vans, or ELA-like vans transporting suburbanites to public transit hubs. Then companies like Uber going driver-less, then car companies offering drive/don’t drive options.

The final blow to the human-driven vehicle a few decades hence: Driver insurance.

Driver insurance premiums, suggests Knack, will skyrocket to unaffordable levels. “Ninety-four percent of accidents are caused by human driving error. Spread the cost of driver insurance among fewer and fewer users … rates will go sky-high.”