How the City of Stratford became a world leader for autonomous vehicle pilots
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Oct 18, 2019
Brian Banks

This Ontario community’s AV “demonstration zone” is a testament to political will and effective collaboration between government, academia and business. We asked Stratford’s mayor and the city’s head of economic development to tell us how they did it, what they’ve learned and to reflect on the potential global impact of the experiment underway on their city’s streets

This Ontario community’s AV “demonstration zone” is a testament to political will and effective collaboration between government, academia and business. We asked Stratford’s mayor and the city’s head of economic development to tell us how they did it, what they’ve learned and to reflect on the potential global impact of the experiment underway on their city’s streets

Two years ago, the province of Ontario unveiled AVIN, a province-wide Autonomous Vehicle Information Network with a mandate to cultivate new research, technology and commercial development to help establish the province as a leader in the emerging autonomous vehicle sector.

The AVIN network includes multiple regional technology development sites. But the immediate standout element was the designation of the city of Stratford — a tourist-friendly centre of 50,000 in southwestern Ontario’s automotive belt — as a “demonstration zone” where vehicles and related autonomous technology and infrastructure could be tested in live, on-street scenarios.

Stratford Ontario autonomous vehicle interview with mayor
Image: City of Stratford

The industry immediately took notice. Since then, Stratford — chiefly in partnership with the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association (APMA) and the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Automotive Research — has been at work expanding an already robust AV-supportive communication backbone while playing host to a steady stream of domestic and foreign carmakers and AV technology developers. And the action is just getting started.

How did tiny Stratford achieve this distinction? What lessons does its story hold for other municipalities? What lies ahead? In the following exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada, Dan Mathieson, Mayor of Stratford, and Joani Gerber, CEO of the Stratford Economic Enterprise Development Corp., share their story and insights.

Electric Autonomy Canada: Can you start by recapping how we got here?

Dan Mathieson: Back in 2008-09-10, the city was looking at smart meters. We had decided that if we were going to put smart meters in, instead of deploying them with cellular chips or putting them on a megahertz radio system, we would look at using the [optical] fibre that was buried throughout the city, roughly 80 kilometres. We looked at [and installed] ubiquitous Wi-Fi. And a number of unintended consequences came with that.

Dan Mathieson, Mayor, City of Stratford
Dan Mathieson, Mayor, City of Stratford

One, we then had a pretty robust communications network that allowed us to do last-mile internet at a very low price for our residents. And as we got into it, we started to look at other opportunities. The automotive industry is a predominant part of the Stratford economy and, because of our close working relationship with the University of Waterloo, which has its digital media campus in Stratford, we started looking at what was emerging there. We learned what they were doing [in the area of connected and autonomous vehicles] at WatCAR [Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research] and that to be testing these cars in the future, you were going to need a robust communications network to take the data back and go through and sort it. And that was the ‘Aha’ moment for us — that we had a communications tool that was pretty effective in doing what people were going to need to do.

Two, we’re just the right size, at 14 square kilometres and with 24-25 stoplights, that you could do some good testing here. We have all seasons of weather. And we also have a million visitors a year come through Stratford. So, it wasn’t like it was going to be going to a one-horse town where there wasn’t going be much variety in traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. We thought that makes a pretty compelling story. Then we just went to look for strong partners. And that’s when we found Flavio Volpe and the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association. Joani’s organization looked for companies to work with as well.

Electric Autonomy: So, there’s Waterloo, APMA and AVIN is also in the mix, too. How did you work with these partners to put something together?

Dan Mathieson: The reason we talked to WatCAR is we figured that if there was going to be some level of success for us, it was going to be by being tied to the research institutions. This work wasn’t going to be done in a vacuum, it was going to include education institutions doing it. With APMA, we thought it made sense to work with them to get a sense of what was available. We knew that they were looking to have a strategy around how best to handle this. AVIN is really an offshoot of an application that was put together between APMA, ourselves and ultimately the Ontario Centres of Excellence. That’s where AVIN came from.

Joani Gerber, Chief Executive Officer, Stratford Economic Enterprise Development Corporation
Joani Gerber, Chief Executive Officer, Stratford Economic Enterprise Development Corporation

Joani Gerber: There’s a leadership component here that I think is critical, too. Council and the mayor’s office and the city came together to say, ‘We understand that the economy is changing, that digital infrastructure is changing, how do we present ourselves as a leader? And how do we make sure we bring the right people into the mix?’ This city is run in an entrepreneurial way. I don’t think you would see the kind of uptake, the kind of community buy-in, the kind of company interest, the sort of power-hitting partners that are around the table if Stratford didn’t have the reputation of being able to mobilize and pull things off pretty quickly.

Electric Autonomy: What has happened thus far on the ground, what can we see out on the roads?

Joani Gerber: To date, 10 per cent of our stoplights are DSRC-enabled [DSRC technology permits autonomous vehicles to communicate directly with each other and with other autonomous driving infrastructure]. WatCAR is actively engaged on the research side there. We also have a public-private partnership with a company called Renesas out of the U.S. [that makes autonomous electronics platforms]. And there is a fully functioning four-acre test track on the outskirts of our city where multiple tests have happened with all three North American auto suppliers [GM, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler] as well as a couple of our Asian partners [Honda, Toyota].

You would also notice that we are taking the entire city and creating an autonomous opportunity that is unique to Stratford. Our intention here is that you can take your autonomous and connected vehicle — after it’s been approved by the province, of course, to be on the road — anywhere you want in the city and demonstrate to your companies, your first buyers, whatever that looks like.

Electric Autonomy: It sounds you’re trying to offer something for outside parties while also providing a higher level of services for your citizens?

Autonomous vehicle on the self-driving car test track in Stratford, Ontario, Canada
Photo: City of Stratford

Joani Gerber: I think this city has taken the approach of technology as being the vehicle — for lack of a better pun — to make it make it a better city, make it better for our residents. When we’re thinking about autonomous, as an example, and we’re thinking about autonomous shuttles that may or may not move our visitors from theatre to theatre, we’re also thinking about: Is that a first mile-last mile solution for our residents and our public transit? Is that a solution from our transit hub to our downtown farmers’ market?

Dan Mathieson: There’s three pieces to it. First there’s the economic benefit of a company coming to town, doing testing, spending money here, having their research people stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants. And we hope that we can do some cross-linkages to the university as well as other Stratford organizations or businesses. Second, they’re going to need to hire some people. Maybe there’s an opportunity for new employment to come through this. Third, there is the need in a city of our size, a small urban city, to want to give hope and vision to younger people on why they should stay in their community. It helps them to say, ‘Well, Stratford’s a cool place to be.’

Electric Autonomy: Are there any risks or potential downsides?

Dan Mathieson: There are some risks. Like anything, there are people in town who’ll say, ‘Why do we care about this stuff? If we’re so smart, why is the city bus at my end of town late today?’ So, there is a continual need for kind of education, moving people forward getting them to understand what’s going on.

Electric Autonomy: What do you tell other municipalities when you’re talking about the AV demonstration zone? Presumably they’re asking you how you did it, can we do it?

Dan Mathieson: The first thing I tell them is that it really comes down to having the political will. You have to be willing to spend political capital. And there’ll be some great wins and there will also be some challenges.

Autonomous vehicle on test in the City of Stratford Canada
Photo: City of Stratford

I’ll give you an example. We had a cyberattack against the city in April of this year. It has nothing to do with the autonomy. But there were the people that said, ‘Oh yeah, you want to test autonomous cars, [now] we have a cyberattack.’

The other piece is that it doesn’t cost anything less [not to act]. You know, I think some people say, ‘Well, I’m just going to wait it out and I’ll get in that game later on.’ The problem with that is, technology is rapidly changing. And whether you act now or wait until later, the cost is never going down for the most part.

Electric Autonomy: Is there anything comparable anywhere else that you’re aware of?

Joani Gerber: Many communities [in Canada are] doing a lot of great work. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that … we’re much further ahead as far as infrastructure investments. I think you’re going to see communities catch up, but I’ve not met one yet that is as ready to go and flip the switch as we are.

Electric Autonomy: What’s next for the demonstration zone?

Joani Gerber: In the next six to 12 months, we’ve got a million dollars to invest in the technology infrastructure through the AVIN program. The other 90 per cent of our stoplight intersections will be DSRC-enabled. 3-D mapping has taken place over most of the city, so you’ll start to see those becoming available to purchase — or however we decide to disseminate that.

By the end of Q1 2020, there will be four AVIN vehicles that will have autonomous and connected technology installed and they will be running around through the city and other communities as well promoting the technology that’s on them.

We’ve also allowed for 10 of our own city-owned fleet vehicles or electric-utility fleet vehicles to have connected and autonomous technology installed. I would say that’s probably more within the next nine to 24 months.

Electric Autonomy: Mayor, did you have to hire people and create an office of some kind to coordinate all this?

Dan Mathieson: To be honest, we haven’t hired anybody. We basically made sure that the people running this — Joani, the CEO of our data utility and our hydro company, and our staff at the city — work on it as part of their everyday plan. We didn’t get some of this money and decide we were going to create a big bureaucracy. We took this opportunity to figure out how we were going to make this work.

Electric Autonomy: You had the capabilities in-house?

Dan Mathieson: It’s a matter of priorities. Is this an economic driver? Is it a city infrastructure project? Is it a utility project? If you answer yes to those, then it should maybe fit in your day-to-day operations. And if it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself why you’re doing it.

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