Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Five reasons why they should test autonomous cars in Ontario

Did I say five? I meant six…

Paul Leroux
It was late and I needed to get home. So I shut down my laptop, bundled myself in a warm jacket, and headed out to the QNX parking lot. A heavy snow had started to fall, making the roads slippery — but was I worried? Not really. In Ottawa, snow is a fact of life. You learn to live with it, and you learn to drive in it. So I cleared off the car windows, hopped in, and drove off.

Alas, my lack of concern was short-lived. The further I drove, the faster and thicker the snow fell. And then, it really started to come down. Pretty soon, all I could see out my windshield was a scene that looked like this, but with even less detail:

That’s right: a pure, unadulterated whiteout. Was I worried? Nope. But only because I was in a state of absolute terror. Fortunately, I could see the faintest wisp of tire tracks immediately in front of my car, so I followed them, praying that they didn’t lead into a ditch, or worse. (Spoiler alert: I made it home safe and sound.)

Of course, it doesn’t snow every day in Ottawa — or anywhere else in Ontario, for that matter. That said, we can get blanketed with the white stuff any time from October until April. And when we do, the snow can play havoc with highways, railways, airports, and even roofs.

Roofs, you say? One morning, a few years ago, I heard a (very) loud noise coming from the roof of QNX headquarters. When I looked out, this is what I saw — someone cleaning off the roof with a snow blower! So much snow had fallen that the integrity of the roof was being threatened:

When snow like this falls on the road, it can tax the abilities of even the best driver. But what happens when the driver isn’t a person, but the car itself? Good question. Snow and blowing snow can mask lane markers, cover street signs, and block light-detection sensors, making it difficult for an autonomous vehicle to determine where it should go and what it should do. Snow can even trick the vehicle into “seeing” phantom objects.

And it’s not just snow. Off the top of my head, I can think of 4 other phenomena common to Ontario roads that pose a challenge to human and robot drivers alike: black ice, freezing rain, extreme temperatures, and moose. I am only half joking about the last item: autonomous vehicles must respond appropriately to local fauna, not least when the animal in question weighs half a ton.

To put it simply, Ontario would be a perfect test bed for advancing the state of autonomous technologies. So imagine my delight when I learned that the Ontario government has decided to do something about it.

Starting January 1, Ontario will become the first Canadian province to allow road testing of automated vehicles and related technology. The provincial government is also pledging half a million dollars to the Ontario Centres of Excellence Connected Vehicle/Automated Vehicle Program, in addition to $2.45 million already provided.

The government has also installed some virtual guard rails. For instance, it insists that a trained driver stay behind the wheel at all times. The driver must monitor the operation of the autonomous vehicle and take over control whenever necessary.

Testing autonomous vehicles in Ontario simply makes sense, but not only because of the weather. The province also has a lot of automotive know-how. Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, and Toyota all have plants here, as do 350 parts suppliers. Moreover, the province has almost 100 companies and institutions involved in connected vehicle and automated vehicle technologies — including, of course, QNX Software Systems and its parent company, BlackBerry.

So next time you’re in Ontario, take a peek at the driver in the car next to you. But don’t be surprised if he or she isn’t holding the steering wheel.

A version of this post originally appeared in Connected Car Expo blog.

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