Autonomous vehicles: How interested is the Government of Ontario?

At the end of 2013, several contacts based in Ontario sent us a document entitled “A pilot project to safely test autonomous vehicles – summary of proposal”. Having been involved in the area of transportation evolution and autonomous vehicle technology for a while, we were clearly intrigued. We admit that we read the document several times because we wanted to understand precisely what the Government of Ontario was stating or alluding to through this document.

Document summary
For the benefit of those who haven’t read the document we’re referring to, here’s a synopsis:

  • Some manufacturers predict fully autonomous vehicles will be available to consumers between 2020 and 2025
  • Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are currently being tested in several jurisdictions around the world
  • “Proponents of autonomous vehicles state that, once widely available and adopted, AVs could provide a number of benefits” (the document goes on to describe some of those benefits including collision and congestion reduction)
  • “After researching and reviewing what laws other jurisdictions have put in place, the MTO is proposing a pilot framework in order to safely test and evaluate autonomous vehicles under prescribed conditions before they become widely available to the public.”
  • Prescribed conditions to undertake pilot testing (paraphrased & summarized):
    • 5 years to effectively evaluate the pilot
    • Restricted use for testing purposes only
    • Safety and rules of the road
    • Registration and insurance
  • The Government of Ontario is “considering this proposal” and inviting those interested to submit their comments on the proposed pilot framework.

Canadian first?
When this document was released, several Canadians promoting autonomous vehicle technology applauded Ontario as the first jurisdiction in the country to indicate interest in autonomous vehicles. The Ontario Government website, in fact, states that “this proposal is a first for Canada”. We should note that in October 2013, the Government of Québec, in its economic strategy document, mentioned autonomous vehicle technology as an area of interest. Other provincial governments in Canada have demonstrated interest in autonomous vehicle technology, to varying degrees. Most of thi s interest has, however, been located well under the radar.

Thanks to increased automation, the automobile will experience significant changes over the next few years. These changes will necessarily impact auto manufacturing business models, among many others. Given the importance of the auto manufacturing industry to Ontario (including hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect jobs), it is not surprising that this province’s government demonstrate an interest in the technology that will redefine the automobile as we know it. The Government of Ontario appears to be creating the appropriate conditions to attract research and development activity. In fact, this pilot project proposal document states that it is “an excellent opportunity to showcase Ontario as a leader in technology development with the potential to attract new business opportunities”.

Autonomous vehicule img1Does Ontar io need to get involved in autonomous vehicle technology development? You bet! But how committed is this Government? Read the document : “Proponents of autonomous vehicles state that, once widely avai lable and adopted, AVs could provide a number of benefits”. Is the Government of Ontario a “proponent”? South of the border, Michigan (US auto manufacturing capitol) Governor Snyder has been a major proponent of AV technology, urging the state’s government to welcome these vehicles. Snyder pushed for this state to join California, Nevada and Florida in allowing driverless vehicle testing. He eloquently discussed and presented the technology’s numerous benefits. Most importantly, he felt that Michigan needed to act quickly as the industry was developing elsewhere: “They’re ahead of us and aren’t we the automotive capitol of the world?”  Snyder and his administration were successful in getting AV testing legislation approved. In addition, the state announced a new $6.5 million, 32-acre site for AV testing which will act as a “fake downtown”. This is, of course over and above the multimillion-dollar connected vehicle testing being undertakAnonymous vehicule img2en in Ann Arbor.

California Governor Brown demonstrated the same clear commitment to AV technology. In September 2012, the Governor signed SB1298, the bill creating the legal framework and operational safety standards for the testing and operation of AVs on the state’s roads and highways.How has Premier Kathleen Wynne or her Ministers “promoted” AV technology? With the except ion of this br ief document inviting comments on a proposed pilot project framework, how has the Government of Ontario demonstrated a commitment to AVs?

Autonomous vehicule img3

Autonomous vehicule img4

The Government of Ontario is considering a five-year pilot project. By the time the comments on this document are received and processed, it will be spring 2014. The Government will then need to structure the framework for the pilot and follow the various activities for a period of five years. This will bring us to 2019-2020. We note that the MTO representatives we spoke! with claimed to be unaware of next steps or timelines regarding an eventual/potential pilot. Google has announced that it will have autonomous vehicles on the road in 2017 (in recent months, we have understood that the technology to be released in 2017 will still require some level of driver engagement). Based on information shared in the media, we expect that “fully” autonomous vehicles will be available by 2020 or shortly thereafter.

If we’re reading this correctly, the Government of Ontario is aiming to complete its pilot project just in time to have these vehicles potentially “roaming” on streets. And then what? Will the Government rush to write the legislation permitting autonomous vehicles to move freely on Ontario’s roads and highways? And even if the sale and use of AVs is delayed in Ontario, how will the province be prepared for the AVs that will quite possibly cross into Ontario from the United States? According to Government of Ontario statistics, on average, approximately a million US border crossings per month contribute to Ontario’s tourism industry. What if some of these US-based vehicles crossing into Ontario in 2020 will are autonomous? How will the Government of Ontario deal with those? Will the laws and regulations be ready if pilot testing is only scheduled to be completed in 2019-2020 (assuming pilot testing begins in the next few months)? It should be noted that California is expected to finalize operational regulations for autonomous vehicles by the end of this year. The testing regulations are written and are in the final stages of completion.

Reinventing the wheel?
Autonomous vehicles have been tested on roads around the world for several years. The team from the University of Parma undertook a driverless journey from Parma to Shanghai in 2010. Google alone has accumulated approximately a million kilometres of testing. Millions of kilometres of “driverless” travel have been accumulated by a variety of players around the world.But the Government of Ontario is interested in undertaking a fiveyear pilot. Granted, each geographic location has its particularities but what exactly is expected to be learned from this experience and why will it take five years to learn?

Clarity required
Does the Government of Ontario truly intend to become a proponent of autonomous vehicle technology and AVs? If so, what is the timeline moving forward? What is expected from this “public consultation” and request for comments? Is it free advice? Is it something else? If the Government of Ontario is indeed serious about the promotion of autonomous vehicles and wishes to attract OEMs to undertake research and development in the Province, opening a window of five years allowing their testing on Ontario’s roads is unlikely to be interpreted as strong a commitment as those made by several other jurisdictions.

Catherine Kargas, MBA, ECBS
Vice-President, MARCON

Click here to read the full Newsletter : Future Mobility 

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