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Cars are becoming autonomous — is Canada ready?

Danielle Boudreau

[nuTonomy beat Uber and Google to the punch, launching the world’s first self-driving taxi in Singapore in August. (IB Times)]

The weirdest taxi ride I’ve ever experience happened a few years ago on my birthday on one unusually warm winter night in Toronto.

The driver passed around a tambourine so passengers could accompany his (bad) singing as he rambled on about the local tourist attractions.

Unfortunately, the music distracted him from his primary responsibility and my companion, a visitor from a smaller city, nervously leaned over to whisper “Is this normal?” in my ear. “Absolutely not,” I replied, nervously watching the road as we lurched back and forth between the streetcar tracks and the other curb .

I wish I had a photo of that bizarrely-decorated car to show you, but that night I was more concerned with seeing my next birthday.

With that in mind, a self-driving taxi service pilot project in Singapore seems like an excellent idea.

The company, nuTonomy, beat Uber’s planned self-driving ride-hailing service in the U.S. by a few weeks. Many automakers, as well as Google, have been testing various applications of this technology with prototypes for years, but this company claims theirs is the first to be offered to the public.

But are we ready to give up control of our cars? It’s going to take time for drivers to fully understand and embrace the new technology, says Stephen Beatty, VP Corporate at Toyota. The Japanese automaker is developing new technology that will make cars safer, but their cars will still be autonomous, still equipped with steering wheels and brakes for the foreseeable future.

Self-driving cars are coming soon for commercial use

Most automakers are investing big money in this technology, and they’re making big claims about the future.

Ford recently announced their intention to deliver a fully autonomous vehicle for ride-sharing in 2021 within geo-fenced areas, saying that these cars will operate without steering wheels, gas or brake pedals.

But the company is still making cars for drivers. “Even as autonomous vehicles become commercially available we believe people will continue to to buy and drive vehicles for a long time,” says Ford spokesperson Alan Hall in an email.

When can I buy one?

Not yet, and the timing depends on who you ask. “Honda’s goal is to introduce automated driving technologies around 2020,” says spokesperson Alen Sadeh.

The Japanese automaker currently offers a host of semi-autonomous features that most car companies also offer, such as lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and collision mitigation braking systems.

Helping drivers, not replacing them

Toyota is also focusing on vehicle automation technologies that assist drivers without taking away control of the vehicle, says Beatty.

When introducing new technology, “there’s a very steep learning curve for drivers,” says Beatty. “The types of technology that we’re moving to next require an almost exponential leap in driver knowledge in how the systems operate, what they do, what to expect.”

“It’s not just about putting the technology in the marketplace, it’s also about having the necessary infrastructure to make the technology work properly, and to do the driver education that’s required to ensure that you don’t have unintended consequences.”

Testing Testing Testing

Most automakers have been testing new autonomous driving technology for years, and will roll it out carefully.

“Our fully autonomous vehicles will be defined as SAE Level 4-capable vehicles, which means fully autonomous driving will be available in a specific geographic area that has been mapped in 3D and has weather that is appropriate for optimal performance of the sensor technology, says Hall.

“That’s why the first application of our autonomous vehicles will be focused in ride-hailing or sharing in optimal areas,” he says, also noting that Ford is currently focusing on the North American market but is looking at other markets as well.

[Several of Uber’s self-driving Ford Fusions are seen in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Four of these cars started answering customer pick-up requests on Sept. 14. (Quartz)]

Are drivers a hazard?

“There’s a debate going on in the industry right now about whether the driver gets in the way of safety,” says Beatty, who explained that Toyota is focusing on adding safety and convenience features that extending driver control without replacing the driver.

“A car stays on the road for 12 years or more these days… It’s going to be a very long time before you have an environment where fully-automated vehicles could become commonplace,” adding that as long as you have fully-automated vehicles interacting with semi-automated cars and vehicles that are fully driver-controlled, you’re going to have issues.

What is geo-fencing ?

It’s an area on a map that has a virtual perimeter, which in this case would contain the self-driven cars to a safe area.

“These types of systems are going to work best in highly travelled, well-controlled traffic environments. The more you get into areas where you don’t have good satellite tracking, where there isn’t the amount of big data coming back from the roadway to identify any real-time changes in traffic flow, then the role of the driver will have to remain intact outside of those corridor routes or major cities,” says Beatty.

Are self-driving or autonomous cars being tested in Canada?

Not yet. “The ministry has received a lot of stakeholder interest, but has not yet received any formal applications to date,” says Bob Nichols, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. “MTO has not received any applications to take part in the pilot to test automated vehicles on Ontario’s roads.”

Stratford, Ont. has volunteered, however, to be one of the first testing grounds for autonomous vehicles in Canada once they’re ready to hit the pavement. The Government of Ontario approved the use of self-driving vehicles under certain conditions, so it’s only a matter of time before testing can commence.

Will new infrastructure be required?

“The goal will be to add as little as possible, in an effort to reduce costs for government, while still ensuring a safe environment for all road users,” says Nichols.

He explains that currently traffic conditions are monitored with traffic light sensors and cameras, and traffic flow can be balanced as the sensors detect traffic. Automated vehicles will become the sensor, communicating directly with traffic signals.

“There is the potential for more intelligence to be added to traffic signals, that allows for wireless communication to vehicles and also the ability to dynamically adapt to real-time traffic volumes,” says Nichols.

Will new legislation be required?

So far, no. On January 1, 2016, Ontario launched a new pilot project to test automated vehicles under certain conditions, explained Nichols, who says that the pilot project will provide information that will inform future policy decisions, but the current laws are deemed to be sufficient.

“We’re living in a period where there’s a step-change in technology, it’s happening very rapidly and to expect that drivers can keep up with that… isn’t realistic,” says Beatty. “The industry and regulators both have a responsibility to ensure that we’re bringing the tech forward but we’re preparing the driving public, pedestrian and cyclists to understand what the technology can and can’t do.”

Beatty gives the example of a new headlight design that would aid drivers, but legislation hasn’t caught up yet and so they can’t be introduced the marketplace until the regulations catch up.