The biggest hurdles ahead of Sidewalk Toronto might involve public skepticism about self-driving cars and concerns about privacy.
Questions abound regarding how Sidewalk Labs can ensure the privacy and security of residents and workers in the neighbourhood when collecting data on them on a scale never before seen in a city, and how government policy might be designed to react to it.
Sidewalk Labs says the data will help it increase the neighbourhood’s efficiency and livability. For instance, a constant stream of information on residents’ driving habits and energy use could help urban planners better design roadways and the energy grid. Cameras monitoring the streets could help to determine if a grocery store, for instance, is at a prime location or could be moved.
But for privacy advocates, such monitoring is sure to spark significant controversy and concerns about whether Alphabet Inc. would sell data on residents to third parties. Sidewalk Labs has said it has no plans to sell data from the project, though at this point it is unclear who would own the data.
Aggarwala said Sidewalk Labs is taking an approach called “privacy by design,” meaning it will design its sensors to collect only data that is absolutely vital to the project and that is not specifically related to any one individual.
“If you create a place where people feel that by entering that place that they’re somehow being surveilled, they’re not going to come. So it’s totally contrary to our interests,” he said.
John Holmes, professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said any privacy concerns would need to be overcome for autonomous vehicles and projects such as Sidewalk Toronto to catch on.
“At the heart of it is data collection,” he said. “It’s partly surveillance, but it’s collection on enormous amounts of data on people’s behaviour. And [autonomous vehicles] can be looked at from that kind of perspective.”
Doctoroff, who is based in New York City with Sidewalk Labs, said the company has “engaged” with Ann Cavoukian, executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto, to advise the company on Canadian privacy laws and standards.
“That said, we have already articulated a set of principles around privacy,” Doctoroff wrote in response to a Reddit question.
“These include the belief that privacy should be designed into the very foundation of the tools we develop; that data will be used to improve quality of life and not be collected without a clear purpose; and that policies [such as the rules around opting out] should be developed transparently and through a rigourous public process.”
Sidewalk Labs could also face skepticism from the public on autonomous vehicles. Surveys have repeatedly shown drivers as being fearful of giving up complete control of their vehicles, despite potential safety benefits.
Aggarwala said the problem will ultimately be solved by familiarizing people with the technology and getting them into self driving vehicles. He said Sidewalk Labs, to establish trust, will hold various demonstrations as it rolls out technologies.
“What people both at Waymo and other companies working on autonomous vehicles [say] is that as soon as somebody experiences an autonomous vehicle for more than a couple minutes, they’re automatically comfortable,” Aggarwala said.
Wolfe said that scenario remains years from becoming reality. The complexity of urban street design, combined with remaining technological advances, makes it unlikely that fleets of autonomous vehicles will be seen driving around major cities anytime soon.
“We’re more likely to see a fleet of automated trucks moving on highways between cities way before we see individual automated vehicles moving around within cities,” he said.
Still, Sidewalk Labs sees potential in automated vehicles not only as a way to transport people but also to transport freight. Aggarwala said the neighbourhood could use a network of underground tunnels for automated vehicles to transport freight and other goods, potentially alleviating increased congestion as more people buy products online and have them delivered.
“One of the neat things about a robot is that it doesn’t have to go on a street,” Aggarwala said.