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On The Road

Preparing for Autonomous Vehicles

With autonomous vehicles hitting the streets, we share everything you need to know, including how to navigate around them.

by Alex Kelly

Prepared or not, self-driving vehicles aren’t a dream of the future anymore — they’re around the corner and poised to change your commute. We have covered a variety of ways that transportation technology will impact the future, and some of these changes are closer than you may think. New developments from some of the autonomous vehicle leaders combined with innovative ways to use this new technology, demand that we take these new road warriors seriously, and soon.

The latest in autonomous technology

Testing of self-driving cars, shuttles, and delivery vehicles has been happening on the streets for years. With industry leaders like Waymo, Tesla, Cruise, and Uber jumping into the autonomous pool, there has been ongoing competition for the first and most road-worthy vehicles. While you may think of futuristic spaceships when we say “autonomous vehicle,” the process is much longer and detailed than that. Research and development are focused on incremental improvements to technology that assists the driver.

Have lane departure warnings or parking assist in your car? You’ve got a low level of assistance on a universal classification system developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers. As the levels increase up to level five, so does the vehicle’s amount of automation. It's these improvements that spell out interesting changes for the future of autonomous vehicles.

Autonomy in many forms

The technology has been applied to delivery services, dispatching small robot-like services to drop off packages or food. In the era COVID-19, this contactless option is in high demand and an interesting pivot for the autonomous vehicle community. Testing autonomous technology for relatively innocuous deliveries is decidedly less risky than transporting humans, allowing for more lenient regulations and restrictions.

Google’s autonomous vehicle shop, Waymo, launched its Via service to do exactly that, while Walmart is working with six different companies to provide autonomous delivery services. And don’t forget about the sky — unpiloted drones are also being used for aerial drop-offs, parachuting everything from COVID-19 tests to online orders. Most delivery options remain decidedly in the testing phase, with regulators rushing to catch up to the innovative applications.

On-road testing

When it comes to transporting people, the same sort of race exists. The City of Toronto has recently announced its plans to test an autonomous shuttle in 2021, offering a driverless experience to eight passengers at a time. Toronto’s test is a first for the city, and follows many of the guidelines proposed by other municipalities — a limited route, on-board safety steward, and smaller operating capacity. These somewhat-closed testing circuits allow operators to control variables in a safer ecosystem.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Tesla model, wherein the electric vehicle manufacturer has just released its beta software update — Full Self-Driving mode, also called Autopilot. Available to select Tesla owners, Autopilot can control the car’s travel path down a lane, around curves, and adjust speeds accordingly — features that were all developed through a constant feed of data from the Tesla neural network of vehicles. The limited release allows for some of its nearly 1M owners to pilot the programming on busy city streets, a plan that has critics disputing the dangerous move.

While the car still requires a driver to be ready to take control if there is an issue, many are concerned that this new technology will create inattentive drivers. The Autopilot function requires the driver’s hands to be on the wheel to function, theoretically allowing for a quick reaction, should something go awry. Technology is still in development, and with that comes limitations. If a roadway has faded or missing street marking, the functionality may be limited, inaccurate, or fail altogether.

Other critics point out that the name — Full Self-Driving — is misleading. The car can’t fully operate independently, technically classifying it as a driver assist feature rather than an autonomous vehicle. Studies have shown that driver behaviour changes when they think a car is more autonomous than assistive, leading to over-confidence in the onboard system. This trend is troubling, as it may lead to drivers being more distracted and less reactive to potential collisions.

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Safety and autonomous driving

It may seem like autonomous fleets are taking over the roads. While that type of full sweep is a cool image, it's a reality that's a bit farther off. In Canada, testing will be slower than that of the U.S. Pilot locations are typically warm, temperate regions that don’t experience snow or road surface damage, ensuring the autonomous vehicles have an easy-to-navigate landscape. Unfortunately, the aggressive winters and variable road conditions of the Great White North can’t accommodate autonomous vehicles as smoothly as our southern neighbours.

However, Canada’s weather doesn’t preclude all autonomous vehicle developments. Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation is conducting a 10-year pilot study on autonomous vehicles, which allows for driverless testing under certain conditions. For regular consumers, vehicles up to a level three of autonomy (wherein the vehicle is a co-pilot but not operating entirely independently) are allowed, meaning that sharing the road with some self-driving vehicles is possible.

However, this hasn’t proved to entirely alter the state of the roads. Autonomous vehicles are still priced higher than most traditional, comparable vehicles, making them less pragmatic for some households. Because of that, there will be a mix of regular and self-driving vehicles on the roadways for a while, until it becomes a more affordable option.

For someone driving a traditional driver-operated vehicle, the mix of vehicles on the roadway means that alert and focused driving is still a must. You don’t know who's on the road, making it essential to drive defensively, and being prepared to stop, swerve, or slow as appropriate. Vigilance will ensure preparation, no matter who's at the wheel.

If you’ve just gotten an autonomous vehicle or are considering buying one, it's essential that you completely understand the entirety of the technology. When to interact with the car, how the systems function, and what safety precautions to follow. If you want to take the technology out for a spin, test it in a parking lot or other open space. Doing so will minimize risk to other drivers and give you a safe space to test it all out.

It is easy to put faith in the technology, but much of it is new, continually evolving. Remember that current technology designs are for assistance, not to replace a driver. Preparing to take the functionality over from the car at any moment is essential. The same attentive, focused behaviours apply here, as the car will still need guidance from a driver for more complex maneuvers.

The future is here

Developments in the autonomous driving world are fast and furious, with technology changing all the time. It's exciting, as the wild notions of the future are now tangible — this sort of sea change in transportation hasn’t been seen since cars and horse-drawn coaches mingled on our roadways. Sharing the road will take a whole new meaning as we all move together, differently.

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