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How driverless cars stand to disrupt Nova Scotia's highway mega-projects

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Photo: Doug Kerr/flickr

On Friday, the government issued a request for proposals for a $1.5-million study to figure out whether to twin eight sections of 100-series highways and -- as importantly -- how to raise the $1.5 billion needed to complete what Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Minister Geoff MacLellan calls a "once-in-a-generation set of mega-projects."

Part of me thinks this is long overdue.

That's the part of me that drives Highway 103 often enough to have passed -- more than once -- within minutes of fatal car crashes. In the past decade, 28 people died in collisions along this mostly un-twinned major highway between Halifax and Yarmouth, making it one of the most deadly in the country.

In 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described upgrading the 101 as "the priority the province and ourselves have identified." In 2013, MacLellan declared "we're looking forward to working with our federal counterparts to make sure we get a commitment and let's get working."

Yes, let's.

But…

Another part of me wonders whether these sort of "generational" highway mega-projects aren't already past their best-before dates.

That's the part of me that's become fascinated by autonomous vehicles (AVs), also known as driverless cars, also known as the future.

According to a recent report from the Conference Board of Canada, major automakers will be selling fully autonomous cars by 2025.

That will change… everything.

"Self-driving cars could free up driving time, significantly reduce the number of car accidents, minimize road congestion and reduce the amount of fuel that we consume." No wonder the Conference Board calls AVs the "next disruptive technology."

Because AVs are much safer and more efficient drivers than we are, a KPMG study also suggested "traffic capacity will increase exponentially without building additional lanes or roadways… It may even be possible to convert existing vehicle infrastructure to bicycle or pedestrian uses."

We won't need more lanes to carry more traffic -- or to make us safer.

Given that MacLellan's mega-projects will probably take five years to green light, a decade to build and be designed to last another 30 years, shouldn't we be asking ourselves -- first -- what kind of highways we'll really need in 30 years? We need to plan for the future, rather than the past.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Doug Kerr/flickr

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