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Self-driving car granted licence in Japan; is Canada next?

Japan just granted its first ever road licence to an electric car that can effectively drive itself: a Nissan Leaf that uses tracking technology to exit freeways, change lanes, pass slower vehicles and brake at red lights.

"This is an ordinary licence plate for an extraordinary vehicle," Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Nissan, reportedly said. "We are grateful to the government of Japan for its support."

Nissan hopes to begin selling self-driving vehicles by 2020 in Japan, whose "increasingly aging population would make an excellent market" for the technology, speculated RenewEconomy.

The licence will allow Nissan to test its autonomous Leaf on the island nation's roads. Other jurisdictions that have permitted self-driving cars include the UK, California and Nevada.

Transport Canada, meanwhile, is studying the technology, working with world experts to set standards. But the federal department hasn't yet said when driverless vehicles will be allowed on Canadian roads.

A widespread roll-out of self-driving cars could dramatically lower the carbon footprint of road travel by easing congestion and reducing fuel use. Such technology might also decrease vehicle accidents.

Yet driverless vehicles create a challenging set of ethical and legal dilemmas. Who is responsible for a fatal accident: the car or its passenger? Could children ride in them without supervision? Or how about drunk people?

"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," Paul Godsmark, a former Canadian highway designer, recently told Canadian Press.

He added: "There are massive benefits to be gained if we can get the sub-optimal humans out of the equation. This will impact society as much as the Internet has done."

In fact, self-driving cars may represent one piece of a broader Internet of Things that proponents (like a B.C.-based wireless company profiled by The Tyee this summer) say could remake human civilization.

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

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