By R. Bruce Striegler

“Robot highway from Canada to Mexico proposed for self-driving trucks,” read the headline on a May 2015 Canadian Press story in the Globe & Mail, followed a few days later by, “The World’s First Self-Driving Semi-Truck Hits the Road,” in Wired magazine. Welcome to the world of autonomous vehicles (AV), the rapidly emerging transportation revolution that until recently was only heard about in university labs or engineering research institutions. Not anymore though, as almost daily, stories of autonomous vehicles are appearing in media around the world. Perhaps the first question is, exactly what is an autonomous vehicle? The simplest answer: a vehicle capable of fulfilling the traditional actions of a manned car or truck, but able to sense its surrounding environment and navigate without direct human input.

Dr. Homayoun Najjaran, PhD, Peng, a professor at UBC’s Okanagan School of Engineering says beginning about 20 years ago, certain science and engineering disciplines developed hardware and electronics that are now playing critical roles in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. “Once these various disciplines had reached a certain level, a new speciality emerged, known as mechatronics.” Described as a multidisciplinary field, mechatronics is a combination of up to eight kinds of engineering. “Once we had all these components working together, the stage was set to move from the labs to take on the real-world problems of developing autonomous passenger cars, transport trucks and other kinds of vehicles.”

We shouldn’t be surprised autonomous technology has evolved to the extent it has in transportation, since humans have been “automating” for years. The process began in the 1860s when English engineer Robert Whitehead invented the self-propelled torpedo. Airplanes got rudimentary autopilots only a decade after the Wright brothers, and the grains for your breakfast cereal were likely harvested by a driverless harvester. And don’t forget the robot vacuum that befuddles your pets. Since about 1935, driverless vehicles have been a standard device in science fiction, and some may remember GM’s ground-breaking 1939 World’s Fair Futurama ride. People stood in line for hours to experience the exciting possibilities of life in the distant future, the year 1960. As one might expect from a ride sponsored by GM, the focus was on what roadways and transportation might look like in 20 years.

Governments and industry not prepared for autonomous vehicles

Such is the state of autonomous vehicles that in January 2015, the Conference Board of Canada issued an ominously-titled report, ‘Automated Vehicles: The Coming of the Next Disruptive Technology.” In the 72-page document it says, “We see the widespread adoption of AVs as being a matter of “when,” not “if.” But there will certainly be a number of obstacles along the way. Potential obstacles include pushback from labour (as many jobs will be displaced); keeping regulations up-to-date with such a rapidly evolving technology; cyber security issues; and insurance and liability issues.”

The report notes that governments and industry are often not prepared for the impacts of new technology due, in part, to the fact that the change is so rapid. “In some cases, governments may even impede the adoption of new technologies due to antiquated regulations. The growing regulatory response to technologies such as ride-sharing applications (for instance, Uber and Lyft) is perhaps the best current example.” Many businesses beyond technology suppliers and vehicle manufacturers will be affected by the roll-out of AV’s, and the Conference Board notes that those involved in freight or passenger transportation, car-sharing, car-rental companies, insurance companies, retail or commercial building management companies (parking) are but a few that will be impacted.

Returning to the technical side, Dr. Najjaran explains autonomous navigation, the action of moving a machine in an unknown environment. The process begins when the machine, through sensors and other electronic signals begins to “localize” or map its surroundings. Najjaran says that as the concept of ‘mapping’ was being discussed in engineering circles, it became clear that there were problems, “You cannot build a map without knowing where you are, and you cannot know where you are without a map.” The answer was simultaneous localization; a computational solution using algorithms to construct or update a map of an unknown environment while simultaneously keeping track of an agent’s location within it. “Finding the solutions to this problem was the turning point in the development of AV’s,” says Najjaran. He adds that LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light, was a critical element in solving the mapping problem.

Autonomous haul trucks in trial tests in Canada’s oilsands

Autonomous vehicles still are considered ‘experimental’, says Dr. Najjaran. However, with the might of some of the world’s largest companies now fully behind driverless technology – Apple, Google, Daimler-Benz and countless others – the technology is well beyond initial testing phases. Many see driverless trucks as a technology that holds the promise of increasing highway safety, reducing human error, and for the trucking industry, a way to ease the chronic driver shortage.

Stories appeared in Canadian media earlier this year, detailing how Suncor Energy Inc., Canada’s largest oil company has confirmed it has entered into a five-year agreement with Japanese manufacturer Komatsu Ltd., specialists in earthmoving and construction machinery. According to the reports, the company is set to provide 175 “autonomous-ready” trucks for use on Suncor’s mining operations north of Fort McMurray. Quoted in published reports, Suncor’s Chief Financial Officer Alister Cowan told investors at a New York conference, “It’s not fantasy,” continuing that the company plans to replace its current fleet of vehicles with automated trucks “by the end of the decade. That will take 800 people off our site,” he revealed. “At an average salary of $200,000 per person, you can see the savings we’re going to get from an operations perspective.” When contacted for this article, Suncor declined an interview request, instead directing us to its website, which reveals the company is continuing to evaluate the technology’s performance during all seasons to determine its commercial and sustainability values. “If we decide to proceed with the technology, progressive implementation may begin in 2017.”

Shell Canada is also reportedly testing autonomous haul trucks at its Alberta oilsands operations, but it too declined an interview request, providing instead a statement, saying, “As we progress, we will continue to evaluate the technology’s performance in our operating conditions and during all seasons to determine the commercial and sustainability value.” Other companies are moving equally fast. Rio Tinto says it has at least 54 autonomous trucks operating in Australia. It says the trucks have led to improved safety and efficiency rates, with lower costs. Some are skeptical that widespread use is around the corner. However, with the swift pace of the technology development, there could be a significant impact on the labour market. Truck driving is the second-most common occupation for men in Canada, with an estimated 253,000 employed in the field. It is worth noting that tens of thousands more work as taxi, bus or delivery service drivers.

Around the world, governments and industry getting behind autonomous vehicles

The Conference Board of Canada report attempts to dispel the notion that AV technology is just a fantasy fad, outlining how, as part of its “Chauffer project”, Google has already rolled out prototype AV’s in California. Google, a pioneer in the field, started its self-driving car project in 2009. Some six years later, its driverless vehicles have logged more than 100,000 miles. And Google is not merely running these vehicles on closed test tracks. Its test fleet of Lexus SUVs has been cruising around Austin, Texas, outfitted with cameras and sensors and a detailed map of streets, lane markets, traffic signals and “Keep Clear” zones.

The Government of the United Kingdom is testing AV’s, and Singapore is scheduled to start testing AV’s on public highways in 2015. The European Union has matured its research into the current CityMobil2 program3 to help develop AVs and has modified its treaty law to allow the introduction of AVs in Europe. Mercedes-Benz is moving, incrementally, toward the development of AVs: it already has demonstration vehicles capable of 99 percent autonomous operation and commercially available vehicles that are 70 percent autonomous. The new Mercedes S550 sedan test model can basically drive itself on freeways. The car can center itself within a lane, remain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and automatically brake and steer to keep pace with traffic. Daimler is developing the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 with the promise that in a decade drivers of the vehicle will be “transport managers” rather than truck drivers. Under Daimler’s system, once a truck reaches 50 mph on a highway, the driver activates a “Highway Pilot” that puts the truck in autonomous mode. The driver can then pivot the seat to face an office work station where he or she can perform other non-operating tasks, such as invoicing or taking care of communications.

General Motors’ Cadillac Division is promising a “super cruise” technology in its 2017 models. Cadillac’s technology will not only allow control of the car to be handed to a computer, but will also feature a “vehicle-to-vehicle technology.” The technology will allow Cadillacs to communicate with other vehicles and to predict, and avoid, highway hazards. Nissan is working on a range of AVs that it claims will be for sale sometime between 2020 and 2025. Tesla has already stated its intent to have cars that can “drive from highway on-ramp to highway off-ramp” in 2015. Already, the State of Nevada has passed legislation to permit AVs on its highways. And Navya Technologies has launched Navya, a fully autonomous electric shuttle for college campuses, airports, and other locations where there is a need for low-speed vehicles.

As the list of companies and governments promoting or permitting AVs grows exponentially, the question arises as to Canada’s position in this new sector. The Conference Board of Canada points out that historically, Canada has been far behind as new technologies have been introduced. “The manufacture of automobiles slipped from our grasp early, as did the introduction of radio and TV when those technologies were in their infancy. Indeed, leading-edge technology companies like Nortel and Avro Canada (Avro Arrow) once inspired dreams of an innovative future but, for various reasons, disappeared. Canada must quickly find niches for itself in the fast-moving world of AV’s.

Ontario has listened, and announced on October 13 that it will permit self-driving vehicles to be tested on public roads, starting January 1 of 2016, under certain conditions. In a press release, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation stated that there are nearly 100 companies and institutions involved in the connected vehicle and automated vehicle industry in the province, and that the pilot will enable those companies to conduct research and development in Ontario rather than in competing jurisdictions, as well as support opportunities to bring automated vehicles to market.