Advancing autonomous vehicles from research to deployment is key to managing Toronto’s explosive growth
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Autonomous Vehicles
Mar 4, 2020
Luke Sarabia

Canada’s biggest city is growing quickly. AV tech will not only make smooth expansion possible, it’ll place Toronto at the heart of the global autonomous revolution

The 407 ETR highway is noted for its potential to be the “AV Highway of the Americas” as a test area for AV technology. Image credit: 407 ETR

Canada’s biggest city is growing quickly. Self driving cars will not only make smooth expansion possible, it will place Toronto at the heart of the global AV revolution

As one of North America’s fastest growing regions, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is entering a decade during which expansion will be its defining issue. And integral to managing that growth will be autonomous vehicles and the technology surrounding them.

That’s the view of Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) president and CEO Janet De Silva, expressed in her opening remarks at the launch of the TRBOT’s new report: Getting Ready for Autonomy: AVs for Safe, Clean and Inclusive Mobility in the Toronto Region.

“Congestion, pollution, urban sprawl, millions of people and goods in queues across the region every day, with no end to our population growth in sight,” De Dilva said.

“These are real problems costing our region billions a year.”

Clearer, safer roads

For one thing, autonomous vehicles hold enormous potential for improving road safety. According to the board’s report, an estimated 94 per cent of motor vehicle collisions are the result of human error, and already widespread basic automated features such as lane departure warnings have reduced rates of injury-causing crashes by 21 per cent.

Along with the added safety will come a fundamental transformation of urban transit. Sharing of autonomous vehicles could bring economic benefits including reduced congestion, greater productivity and the freeing up of large urban areas currently utilized by parking and other personal vehicle infrastructure.

“Singapore, San Francisco and Phoenix are already building this future. Toronto is growing too quickly to wait and copy their homework.”

-Janet De Silva, President and CEO, Toronto Region Board of Trade

“Imagine what widespread AV deployment could look like: Commuters stepping out of their homes and into self-driving vehicles taking them and a few neighbours to a local GO station.

“They arrive early – with no delays from accidents or congestion – with enough time to visit the shops, daycares, delivery centres and other businesses that could replace the 70,000-plus parking spots currently surrounding transit hubs,” De Silva said.

Toronto Region Board of Trade and BLG Report: Getting Ready for Autonomy - AVs for Safe, Clean and Inclusive Mobility in the Toronto Region
Getting Ready for Autonomy – AVs for Safe, Clean and Inclusive Mobility in the Toronto Region. Toronto Region Board of Trade Report

“It sounds Utopian – but places like Singapore, San Francisco and Phoenix are already building this future. Toronto is growing too quickly to wait and copy their homework.”

Toronto’s abundant resources

Two factors make the Toronto region ripe for the autonomous revolution.

One is the area’s rich automotive history – Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and Honda all have manufacturing facilities in Ontario. Magna International and Linamar Corporation, two of North America’s largest automotive parts manufacturers, also have headquarters in the region.

The other is the city’s growing technology sector.

Toronto is already reportedly home to the highest concentration of artificial intelligence startups in the world, and many of those startups involve AV technology.

The Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN), which is backed by the Ontario government, provides funding, business development and demonstration grounds for companies developing AV technology. Current AVIN-backed projects include an autonomous vehicle pilot project in Stratford, Ont., and startups such as SafeGround AI, which is developing predictive technology to enhance AV driving.

According to a board of trade representative, one of the key reasons for publishing the report was to increase awareness of the work in the area already being done by such companies. As Toronto’s technological leadership and manufacturing capabilities become more widely recognized, AV development in the region can shift from an era of research to one of deployment.

AV highway

Among the recommendations the report makes is to designate the 407 ETR highway as the “AV Highway of the Americas,” on which AV technology could be tested.

The 407, which runs 108 kilometres across the northern boundary of the GTA, was the world’s first electronically operated toll route. It currently utilizes over 1,000 cameras on a fiber-optic network to monitor traffic and automatically assign tolls to each vehicle. As such, according to the report, it is a “regional asset ready for the testing and deployment of AVs unlike any other.”

The designation would allow AV companies to test vehicles and infrastructure on a level that would otherwise be impossible. Such technology, beyond AVs themselves, could include roadside infrastructure which communicates with and monitors connected vehicles.

“We could start down this path tomorrow, but only if we act quickly and decisively”

-Janet De Silva, President and CEO, Toronto Region Board of Trade

Eventually, the report recommends, the 407 should adopt a dedicated AV-only lane.

The 407’s path through much of the region means it could eventually link AV systems and transit systems that are now relatively disconnected.

Designating the 407 as an AV highway would also attract other AV-related investment to the region, the report says.

Political alignment key

The report is the product of consultation with TRBOT’s AV Readiness Council, which includes representatives from organizations including Ford, Ontario Power Generation, Telus, and Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG).

BLG, a Canadian law firm active in the field of autonomous vehicles, also sponsored the report and hosted its launch.

As such, the report demonstrates a significant show of industry leadership at a crucial moment in the transition to AVs.

BLG’s Robert Love, co-chair of the Autonomous Vehicle Readiness Council, and the TRBOT’s Janet De Silva speak about Connected Autonomous Vehicles and the future of transportation

Despite the pieces being in place, however, it will take more than a little political coordination and willpower to bring about the AV revolution.

The Toronto region, for instance, is made up of 34 distinct municipalities. For AVs to become fully integrated into its transit ecosystem, a variety of different parties must be brought on to the same page.

Concrete steps recommended by the report include increasing federal and provincial investments to ensure new AV-related talent can be nurtured and current workers are retrained in AV skills. It is also crucial that private industry and the public are kept aware of the changes AVs are expected to bring to Toronto.

The report also recommends that municipalities establish a consistent framework for sharing data with one another so regional transit authorities can work together to integrate AVs into their networks.

Toronto’s tactical plan

Toronto has already taken a step towards AV deployment. In October, the city adopted an Automated Vehicles Tactical Plan, making it one of the first North American cities to do so.

The plan includes a timeline to 2050 but also recommends several short-term steps that can be taken now to move towards autonomous transport. Those include an automated public shuttle trial in Scarborough, set to commence later this year. 

AVs in the Toronto region are anything but distant. But as the TRBOT report argues, the time for action – from industry leaders, policy makers and educators – is now. 

“We could start down this path tomorrow, but only if we act quickly and decisively,” De Silva said, adding, “our hope is that this report is the match to start that fire.

“AVs may sound like the future, but as I tell our members – the future is already here. Now it is time to commercialize, scale and deploy it.”

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