Waymo self driving technology
Waymo’s autonomous self-driving vehicle in action

Accidents that occur with auto-pilot engaged make headlines, but with the number and reach of autonomous vehicle trials spreading, more global jurisdictions legalizing AVs and major auto manufacturers featuring hands-free technology, autonomous driving is getting real. Yet industry experts say there are still some important barriers to overcome

Autonomous driving has long existed as a futuristic, Jetsons-type mode of transport, but what was once a commuter pipe dream is creeping closer to reality.

Will this year be the concept’s watershed moment?

In May, industry heavyweight Ford announced its BlueCruise hands-free highway driving system will be available to customers in the U.S and Canada, while the UK announced self-driving cars, within certain regulations, will be allowed on roads by the end of 2021. Germany’s lower parliament approved legislation to allow driverless vehicles on public roads by 2022. And in Dubai, General Motors and Honda have teamed up to bring a robotaxi service in the country in 2023 and are eyeing having over 4,000 autonomous vehicles (AVs) operating there by 2030.

While electric mobility has so far been largely passenger-vehicle driven, autonomous driving has stronger early potential in the commercial and transit sectors, too. In Canada, for example, Electric Autonomy‘s previous reporting has examined self-driving fleets being tested by Canadian Tire and Loblaw/Gatik, pilot programs and explored evolving policy and public perception of the concept.

The industry is evolving at a rapid pace and while it may not arrive tomorrow, passenger car drivers should be preparing and educating themselves about the next frontier of transportation.

Safety checkpoints

Before autonomous driving technology becomes more integrated and widespread there are a lot of safety checkpoints that need to be met, says Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) Director of Public Relations Kristine D’Arbelles. D’Arbelles points to issues like distracted and impaired driving, as well as weather conditions and other external factors to consider including, in the event of an accident, who is responsible.

Kristine D'Arbelles, Director of Public Affairs, Canadian Automobile Association
Kristine D’Arbelles, Director of Public Affairs, Canadian Automobile Association

“There is still this ultimate question,” says Darian Zigante, an associate at Toronto-based venture capital firm Wittington Ventures, one of the primary funding partners behind Gatik. “When something goes wrong, whose fault is it?”

For the CAA, D’Arbelles says, it’s important to distinguish between the automated features like Ford’s hand-free option and completely autonomous, self-driving vehicles as technology moves towards the latter. 

“The transition between now and then has to be done very carefully,” she says. “One thing that I like to say is that the technology and vehicles right now are an assistant, not a replacement for the driver.”

Under Germany’s new driverless legislation there are conditions that must be met with respect to liability insurance coverage and a rule that the autonomous vehicle must be able to be remotely accessed in the event of a problem.

While official statistics on driver-assisted accidents remain largely anecdotal, a quick online search shows a few dozen incidents over the last decade — several have caused fatalities.

“We are advanced enough that we have cars that drive themselves, but there are all these edge cases that prevent mass deployment”

Darian Zigante, Associate, Wittington Ventures

Edge cases an obstacle

One of the most extensive studies tracking incidents was published last fall by Waymo, the autonomous vehicle developer and taxi service spun out of Google back in 2016. That report catalogued all the incidents it experienced in 21 months of autonomous testing in Phoenix, Ariz. At about the same time, Waymo launched a fully driverless taxi service in that city and it has plans to expand that in 2021 to other locations in the southern U.S.

Darian Zigante, Associate, Wittington Ventures
Darian Zigante, Associate, Wittington Ventures

The Waymo example, says Wittington’s Zigante, shows how we are at once very close and yet also very far from more widespread AV use. “We’re trying to still handle all the edge cases.”

In other words, deploying driverless taxis in suitable communities in warm-weather cities like Phoenix is one thing for the technology to handle, but “if you were to throw that same car in the middle of New York City… [or] in Seattle with all the rain, or Toronto with the snow, it would be very different,” he explains.

“I think that’s a perfect example of, yes, we are advanced enough that we have cars that drive themselves, but there are all these edge cases that prevent mass deployment.”

“Level 5 autonomy or fully driverless…is more of a concept right now and it’s a goal to work towards”

Raed Kadri, Head of Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network

What the future holds

Raed Kadri, head of Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN), echoes that completely autonomous or driverless vehicles as opposed to vehicles that include optional driverless modes are more of a long-term goal.

AVIN Raed Kadri
Raed Kadri, Head of Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN)

“It’s harder and harder to pinpoint a time for that, because there’s a lot of things that need to be done: technology needs to be developed and continue to be developed and tested and then commercialized,” he says. “But there’s also a whole bunch of other aspects that will have to get worked out as we push into that, so a Level 5 autonomy or fully driverless … I would say is more of a concept right now and it’s a goal to work towards.”

There have been several autonomous vehicle pilot programs run across Canada with many occurring in Ontario. The vast majority have been conducted on tracks, however some notable real-world trials including an automated shuttle run by The City of Toronto, Toronto Transit Commission, and Metrolinx set to be launched in fall 2021, a recently concluded airport shuttle pilot in Ottawa and a testing ground on city streets in Hamilton. The data yielded from the pilots will be used to inform a more concrete policy towards AVs and public roads in the future.

But for that longterm transition to be successful, D’Arbelles says certain factors needed to align like understanding and implementing new infrastructure and customers trusting this change and feeling safe. 

SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers) has identified 6 levels of automation (0 through 5)
SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers) has identified 6 levels of automation (0 through 5). Source: Transport Canada – Canada’s Safety Framework for Automated and Connected Vehicles. Click image for full report.

American data from a 2020 Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) survey showed 48 per cent of respondents — members of the public — would never get into a self-driving taxi or ride share service. Twenty per cent said they believed autonomous vehicles would never be safe.

There are other safety concerns besides driver and passenger safety that need to be worked out as well, like cybersecurity. Kadri says that anything that is added to a vehicle will undergo a testing process, much like features are with driver-controlled vehicles. This is another factor that may delay adoption, but for the right reasons.

“If you look at the technologies that are implemented in vehicles, right now, they go through a very rigorous testing process, and in a process that ensures that once they are put on vehicles, they’re able to do what they’re saying what they’re supposed to do,” he says. “That’s something that has to happen, anytime these technologies get into into production, and that would continue to be the case, as you push forward and more and more.”

No matter how long it takes, D’Arbelles says Canada is on the right track and is making good progress with testing, studies and implementation.

“We’re moving in the right direction.”