How automakers like Tesla are paving the way to a future with driverless cars through autonomous technology
BY MATT OWCZARZ
The future is in motion as Canada begins testing self-driving technology.
Autonomous – self-driving, or driverless vehicles – will be perfected to navigate roads without needing someone being behind the wheel. Equipped with GPS, cameras and sensors, autonomous cars have the potential to be safer and more efficient by never running red lights, never exceeding the speed limit and being free of all human error. However, there are a few kinks to work out before they can be fully rolled out.
Back in January 2016, Ontario green-lit the first automated vehicle pilot program in Canada that is supporting the testing and development of self-driving cars for three participants – the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR), the Erwin Hymer Group, and BlackBerry QNX. Canada has some catching up to do with companies like Uber and Google, who have already been testing their self-driving cars in the U.S. for a few years. However, interest in the industry is beginning to stir as even the TTC takes a preliminary glance at incorporating automated technology in the city’s transit system, in a recent staff report.
WatCAR has been conducting advanced research to further automotive innovation with 125 faculty researchers leading the largest university-based automotive activity in the country. They are currently testing a Lincoln MKZ hybrid, nicknamed the ‘Autonomoose,’ on public roads with a driver in the front seat to grab the wheel if necessary.
Ross McKenzie, the managing director of WatCAR, says their vehicle is enhanced with a lidar unit, a detection system that shoots out laser beams in a 360-degree configuration, advanced radar systems on the front and rear bumpers and a camera mounted on the windshield, among other technologies, to allow it to record information.
“What you do [when testing an] autonomous vehicle is you drive it manually first down a road and it learns that route. As it’s going along, the vehicle takes note of things like where the sign posts are that are holding up the speed zone, or where the post is for the stop sign, or trees or other fixed objects on the side of the road,” he says. “And so the next time the car goes down the road, in autonomous mode, it’s using all these different inputs to have not just the capability to replace a driver but it’s more capable than a driver because it has a 360 degree field of vison as it’s going down.” People can only see where they are looking, and when driving they have to constantly keep their eye on the road, check their blind spots, and look at their rear-view mirror in order to be aware of their surroundings. The autonomous car will be able to see everything all at once, all the time.
All of the on-board technologies – lidar, radar, and sensors – operate simultaneously to collect information on the surroundings that can be then processed by a computer with enhanced processing capabilities on the vehicle.
“[The autonomoose] can process all those pieces of information simultaneously in real time and then make an informed decision as to whether it should speed up, slow down, brake or make a left hand turn,” McKenzie says.
Based on the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) standards for automation, the autonomoose is operating at level 2, or the partially automated level, which means a human driver performs part of the driving. The plan is to get it to level 3 – or conditional automation, where the automated driving system performs the majority of the driving, unless weather or road conditions require human intervention, later this year, and ultimately into level 4, high automation level, by the end of the three-year research program. The end of the road is at level 5, or full automation, which would have the car perform all the functions a human driver could at all times without assistance, says McKenzie.
However, advances in technology have allowed for semi-autonomous features to be implemented in modern cars which allow them to be both computer- and human-driven. Most modern cars can be classified as semi-autonomous because of driver-assisting technologies. These include features like steering assist, adaptive cruise control or lane departure warning.
The dreaded parallel park can be avoided in modern semi-autonomous vehicles if a driver engages the self-parking system.
Stephen Beatty, vice president, corporate, Toyota Canada Inc., says, “You have got a number of sensors and cameras on vehicles which are run by onboard computers which allow the vehicle to identify where it is related to an open parking space.
“The car then measures the opening, identifies whether the vehicle itself will fit and then will loosely handle the steering wheel. The vehicle will take over and park by itself.”
When these driver-assisting features are bundled up together they make a car semi-autonomous.
“All of these individual systems are currently being deployed in the marketplace as stand alone driver assist, but they are the starting element, if you will, of a fully autonomous vehicle,” he says.
Semi-autonomous technology is always being improved, but it’s not perfect, and that’s where the danger of semi-autonomy lies. These features, currently, only assist drivers in safely operating the vehicle.
“There are some vehicles out there that have these features and they clearly stipulate that you have to be in the driver’s seat, that you have to remain alert and follow the traffic, and you have to be ready to take control on a moment’s notice at any time,” says McKenzie.
Self-driving cars have the potential benefit of greatly reducing the number of road crashes and collisions, but – for now, and for the foreseeable future – the technology possess a number of limitations. People, however, are eager to engage in bad or distracted driving habits while the tech handles the driving, according to a report released in 2016 from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation.
The report, titled Automated Vehicles: Driver Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices, says that 24 per cent of drivers would drive tired, 17 per cent would drive distracted, 10 per cent would sleep and drive, and 9 per cent would drink and drive if they were operating some form of semi-autonomous car.
It is important to keep in mind that even though cars are getting smarter, the responsibility and liability of the safe operation of the car is still on the person who is driving under the Highway Traffic Act and the Criminal Code. As of now, laws and regulations do not support the use of autonomous vehicles, level 3 onwards, on roads unless it’s for testing purposes under the Ontario’s automated vehicles pilot project (Regulation 306/15).
Clinton Stibbe, a Toronto Police Constable, says, “the technologies that we have in vehicles now are making us, unfortunately, worse drivers.” He uses the analogy of the person who is reversing into a parking space but looks through a camera instead of out the back window because they assume that they can see everything through the camera. “The reality is you can’t,” says Stibbe.
“We as drivers need to keep in mind that we are responsible regardless if the vehicle has autonomous capabilities or not. We are responsible for what happens while we are behind the wheel of a motor vehicle,” he says.
Along with any new technological innovation that carries the potential to completely alter fundamental parts of everyday living – in this case, transportation – there is a sense of reluctance and unwillingness towards letting go of the old ways. There are people out there, gear-heads and common folks alike, who enjoy taking their rides out for a spin, even McKenzie himself.
“I like nothing better than to drive on a bright sunny day, and you’re going down the open road, especially on the weekend. That’s… that’s like an… experience I value,” he says.
These driving enthusiasts shouldn’t be afraid of having their steering wheels ripped out of their hands, not for a long time at least.
“People are always going to drive and the only challenge we really have going forward is to ensure that the human operators continue to be even more alert than they are now,” says McKenzie.
On the other hand, those eager for a future where they can take their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road may have to the buckle up for a slow ride because the road to autonomy may be long and bumpy for the foreseeable future.