Autonomous cars in the Great White North

Jean-Pierre Arcoragi, Ph. D.

Senior Consultant and an expert speaker on exponential technologies

So far, autonomous cars have performed rather well in moderate climate.  But they have not yet demonstrated how they will handle Nordic conditions such as blizzards or simply how well they can pull out of snow banked parking places.

One of the main rational for the introduction of autonomous cars is to bring down the number of deaths and injuries due to the fact that humans are not such good drivers. It is clear that autonomous cars have to go through a learning curve during harsh winter conditions before they can meet that expectation in nordic countries.

Since January 1st 2016, Ontario allows autonomous cars to be tested on its road. Of course, as is already the case in a few U.S. states, we are not talking of full autonomy but conditional autonomy: a fully licensed driver has to be behind the wheel at all times just in case something goes wrong.

The city of Stratford, Ontario, will be ground zero for this demonstration. There is already a Wifi network that covers the whole city and a lot of its infrastructure will be adapted to the introduction of fully autonomous cars on its streets. Furthermore, Stratford is not far from the University of Waterloo’s Autonomous Vehicles Lab and more than this, it is close to what is now known as Canada’s Silicon Valley, the Kitchener-Waterloo region, a distant suburb of Toronto. There will be more than one hundred Ontarian car part companies that will try to get their share of this new reality. QNX, a division of Blackberry, will be a key player in this Canadian quest for vehicle autonomy.

But we expect that the picture that will soon emerge will be vastly different from simply replacing an existing car with an autonomous car. Some level of automation already makes our driving experience much more pleasant and safer. We can all foresee that full autonomous vehicles will mark the end of the private car ownership era. Google’s, Uber’s and probably Apple’s vision is for a fleet of fully autonomous, low cost taxis that will come to your doorstep when you want  them to take you where you want to go. This advanced car sharing system will lead to a lot fewer cars used much more intensely in order to replace our existing car fleet.

The Canadian companies that will really benefit from this revolution might not be the traditional automotive players of the past.  Indeed, a new generation of suppliers is expected to rise from the autonomous car revolution.  Electronic, optic and software industries will get the largest share of this transformation, not only because they are essential to the efficient and safe operation of automated vehicles but also because passengers will have a lot of free time and will demand both entertainment and information.

In addition to Silicon Valley, several regions with no traditional link to the automotive industry harbour industry clusters of increasing interest to the future of transportation.  Boston and Montreal are among the most important cities in the world when it comes to the development of entertainment software. Between Ontario’s strong automotive tradition, leadership in automation (QNX), and two outstanding university research groups and Quebec’s world-class infotainment hub, national automotive test lab and severe winters, Canada is well positioned to grab a larger piece of the automotive markets of the future if it can rally and take the initiative.

Recently, Marc Garneau, the new Canadian Federal Transport Minister, asked Canada’s Senate Transportation and Communications Committee to study regulatory, policy and technical issues that have to be addressed in order to introduce self-driving vehicles on Canada’s roads. The Government of Canada needs to realize that vehicle automation can drive economic growth.  The wisdom of the Senate will certainly be an asset, but is it really the organization that is the best suited to lay the groundwork for such a key industry to Canada’s future? A recent report  from the Conference Board of Canada revealed that car automation could soon generate economic benefits of the order of 65 billion dollars every year in Canada.  To put things into perspective, this amount as to to be compared to an anticipated federal deficit of the order of 18 billion dollars in 2016-2017.

Finally, consider that President Barack Obama has recently set aside nearly four billion US dollars for car automation in his most recent State of the Nation and that shortly thereafter, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) informed Google that the software in its autonomous cars can be considered to be “the driver”.  These announcements were followed by an increased pressure on automotive manufacturers in the European Union to speed up the development of autonomous cars.

The window of opportunity that provides first mover advantage is a narrow one.  Will Canada be fast enough to seize the moment?


One thought on “Autonomous cars in the Great White North

  1. I was honored to deliver the keynote presentation at the Stratford Business Excellence Awards event last night. The city of Stratford Ontario is making available their fibre optic backbone and citywide WiFi network to help drive connected and autonomous vehicle innovation. As you note in your post, Stratford is showing real leadership in this area will no doubt reap the benefits from this investment. This kind of leadership is what Ontario and Canada need to be at the forefront of the connected and autonomous vehicle evolution.
    See the following for more details:

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