Canadian Manufacturing

Self-driving cars expected to boom

The Canadian Press

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Commercial companies are working through the early stages of their rollouts, sticking mostly to pre-mapped and set routes, and incrementally giving more control to the machines.

The self-driving era is here, just not the one that was promised.

Instead of sleek pods without steering wheels ready to chauffeur buyers off the lot, there are mostly driverless Chevy compacts, Chrysler minivans, and Ford box trucks with bolted-on hardware trundling around bits of the U.S. southwest and, as of August, a short loop of roads in Ontario.

But while the current reality has fallen far short of automaker predictions, it’s worth stopping to acknowledge that there are trucks driving around public Canadian roads making deliveries, without a soul inside.

The technological achievement of the feat has huge implications for business, and society, but the latest industry outlook, humbled by past failures, points to a more gradual rollout.


“People think there will be a magic day where suddenly everything will be autonomous, but that’s not how this is going to work,” said Raquel Urtasun, a leading artificial intelligence researcher and chief executive of Toronto-based autonomous outfit Waabi Innovation Inc.

“You will have certain areas where this technology is going to deploy, and then those areas will expand under more and more difficult situations.”

The slower timeline has led many companies to bow out of the competition in recent years, including Lyft Inc. and Uber Inc. selling off their self-driving divisions and Magna International Inc. taking a big step back, while just in October, Ford Motor Co. cut the ignition at Argo AI, taking a US$2.7-billion loss as it and Volkswagen wound down their combined self-driving effort.

“We don’t expect there to be a sudden aha moment like we used to,” said Ford chief executive Jim Farley on a conference call after the announcement. “Fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off.”

Meanwhile companies still in the push, including the Cruise division of General Motors Co., and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo LLC, have faced calls from analysts and investors to pull back on spending given the pace of progress.

The problem is that the real world is messy, so even if companies expose their AI-powered systems to thousands of virtual scenarios, the vehicles still might have trouble figuring out what to do when an inflatable Santa Clause blows onto the road.

To deal with this, companies that have managed to take operators fully out of the vehicle still rely on remote supervisors to help respond to the unexpected, making autonomous cars more akin to using self-checkout at the grocery store, where an attendant is at the ready for when the rutabagas don’t scan.

The need for active monitoring, at least for now, puts practical limits on a consumer rollout, even though Tesla Inc. keeps trying. Last month, the company allowed Canadians access to its latest self-driving software, but drivers are still required to sit poised and ready to grab the wheel at any time.

Other auto companies, like Ford, have figured that if someone’s going to be in the driver’s seat anyway, money is better spent making active driving safer, leaving it to the trucking and autonomous cab companies to push forward with efforts to fully remove paid drivers.

So far these commercial companies are working through the early stages of their rollouts, sticking mostly to pre-mapped and set routes, and incrementally giving more control to the machines.

Gatik Inc., the company that announced in October it was the first to fully remove drivers in Canada, is shuffling groceries for Loblaw Inc. between its headquarters on the western edge of Brampton, Ont. to a distribution centre about seven kilometres away.

The fixed route, which avoids schools, hospitals, and busy pedestrian areas (along with the left-hand turns that autonomous vehicles still struggle with), means the company has fewer surprises to deal with.

“It is a highly structured and constrained environment,” said Gatik’s head of policy Richard Steiner.

The company is focused on shorter, business-to-business deliveries as one of the most realistic short-term expansions of driverless technology.


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