Policy leadership needed to foster confidence to accelerate autonomous vehicle deployment in Canada
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Jun 20, 2023
Vince Amodeo

Despite positive initial steps, the time is ripe for a stronger coordinated federal-provincial push to establish this country as a global leader in autonomous vehicle development

Public acceptance and trust are critical to successful deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs). This puts an extra emphasis on governments to come up with smart regulation for AVs that balances technological progress and safety.

Despite positive initial steps, the time is ripe for a stronger coordinated federal-provincial push to establish this country as a global leader in autonomous vehicle development

Public acceptance and trust are critical to successful deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs). This puts an extra emphasis on governments to come up with smart regulation for autonomous vehicles that balances technological progress and safety in Canada. The alternative is an onerous, unaligned set of provincial regulatory frameworks that stifles innovation and provides no greater level of public confidence.

Transport Canada’s National Policy Framework is a step in the right direction, clarifying jurisdictional roles and responsibilities, one of the key areas of confusion for early market innovators. The framework’s key principles highlight the need for regulatory alignment among governments and between sometimes competing regulatory frameworks.

A great start

The federal government’s umbrella effort combines Transport Canada’s safety framework, cybersecurity considerations and testing requirements guidance. While a great start — and a differentiator that puts Canada ahead of other nations — little has been done since 2019 to truly drive innovation to realize autonomous vehicles on a tangible level.

Even though most of the regulatory burden for autonomous vehicle deployment will fall to individual provinces and territories, federal leadership is essential to create certainty and ensure a national sandbox for innovation and investment. This is particularly true when it comes to creating a national advantage attracting autonomous vehicles companies that are keen to test their technology against the harsh Canadian climate.

To truly reach the next phase of economic and technical exploration and opportunity, the autonomous vehicle industry needs to see a similar level of buy-in and cooperation to that demonstrated by the governments of Canada and Ontario in courting electric vehicle investment. A coordinated push, led by the federal government and supported by key provinces, would see Canada positioned as a true global leader.

Ontario a pacesetter

Ontario has embraced the autonomous opportunity wholeheartedly — understandable, given the strength of its automotive and technology sectors. Using the definition “a passenger motor vehicle, commercial motor vehicle or a streetcar with an automated driving system that operates at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) driving automation Level 3, 4 or 5,” Ontario has accelerated growth in the sector though the launch of the Automated Vehicle Pilot Program. (These levels indicate the amount of autonomy, from full autonomy (Level 5) down to conditional autonomy (Level 3), where the technology can take on all aspects of driving but would still need a driver to be attentive enough to take control if necessary.)

While the bulk of investment has been in the Toronto-to-Kitchener-Waterloo technology corridor, Ottawa and Hamilton are also active hubs. The Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network (OVIN) aims to incubate and accelerate commercialization of advanced automotive technologies and smart mobility solutions. Spurred by progress at OVIN, Ontario has seen successful autonomous tests in Toronto, Brampton, Hamilton, Stratford, Whitby, and Kitchener-Waterloo to name a few.

Even grocery chain Loblaw is involved. Together with U.S.-based Gatik, it has deployed autonomous trucks to cover the “middle mile” of the supply chain, making runs on known routes in the Toronto area, essentially moving goods from X warehouse to Y distributor, most recently deploying Level 4 autonomy. Ontario’s ecosystem is also the home of world-class testing tracks, notably Area X.0, funded by Invest Ottawa, and GM’s track in Oshawa.

Quebec playing to its strength

Quebec is steering into the province’s strength as a global leader in artificial intelligence and machine learning. The province amended its Highway Safety Code to define “autonomous vehicle” to mean an SAE Level 3, 4 or 5 road vehicle, and to provide special rules for pilot projects to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on Quebec roads. The Code was also amended to explicitly prohibit the operation of autonomous vehicles on roads where public traffic is allowed. This prohibition does not apply to Level 3 vehicles approved for sale in Canada and allows the government to green-light specific pilot projects that meet its internal criteria for safety and insurance. This has led to several successful deployments of autonomous vehicles through pilot projects, most notably the autonomous shuttle service in Candiac, a partnership between Navya and Keolis, which claimed to be Canada’s first fully autonomous vehicle on Canadian roads.

In essence, by banning private use of autonomous vehicles above Level 3 on Quebec roads, regulators have created a single path for would-be innovators to partner with the government on pilot projects where both sides can have their concerns addressed. Simply put, by ensuring all innovators working above Level 3 operate in partnership with the government, the government of Quebec has embedded its regulators in the R&D phase of autonomous vehicles. This allows those regulators to learn in conjunction with would-be operators and will provide Quebec with a head start in understanding and crafting the necessary regulations to support broader deployment.

Alberta and B.C. taking steps

Alberta has facilitated several successful tests and pilot projects largely focused on Edmonton and Calgary. The province’s road regulator, Alberta Transportation, allows driverless vehicles on public roadways. But the test site needs to be inspected, the vehicle must meet specific requirements and a driver needs to be inside the vehicle while it is on the road. Alberta has also invested in specifically designed testing tracks. Notably, the ACTIVE-AURORA test bed in Edmonton, a collaboration between the Government of Canada, Alberta, Edmonton, the University of Alberta’s Centre for Smart Transportation, Stantec and the University of British Columbia.

British Columbia replicates the Alberta approach, with a special process to obtain permits for pilot testing. Unlike Alberta, it does not permit testing of autonomous vehicles on roads. The government has commented on the need to adapt to emerging technologies in order to balance road safety and enhanced mobility, but no action has been taken. The lack of enabling regulation led to the cancellation of a planned automated electric shuttle pilot at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Wider deployment now key

On the technological end, levels of automation are increasing, though progress is gradual. Autonomous vehicles require a level of connectivity that does not exist across Canada, keeping testing and deployment regionally focused. While we have seen the successful, albeit small-scale, deployment of fixed-loop autonomous vehicles on Canadian roads, we are a ways off from autonomous vehicles taking over.

Building on the clearly outlined parameters of the National Framework, with attention given to attracting investment and incentives to local governments to encourage wider deployment, would position Canada at the cutting edge. AVs on roads, with citizen buy-in, is clearly the goal. Running pilots and creating a regulatory and innovative sandbox would not only support homegrown entrepreneurs, but also attract the best from around the globe. Creating a system like this, supported by the access to talent produced by Canada’s universities, would allow this country, with its diverse climate and geography, to truly excel and lead what we believe to be the future of civilian transportation, especially in an urban context.

Remaining issues are complex and require time, investment and data to convince the public and regulators that the technology is ready. Governments need to reassure the market with a stable, clear regulatory framework that allows for real-world testing to produce the necessary data to iron out kinks in technology and win over public confidence. We are getting closer, albeit incrementally.

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Vince Amodeo is a Director and Technology Practice Lead at Global Public Affairs, Canada’s leading public affairs consultancy. He is based in Toronto and specializes in navigating policy challenges and market access for emerging technologies as well a broader government modernization efforts.

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