Ontario is becoming a hub of self-driving car development and that’s potentially good news for any driver who’s been stuck in gridlock or frustrated by the forlorn search for a parking spot downtown in winter.
Autonomous and semi-autonomous cars developed in our backyard mean cars that are going to work in our climate — not to mention a slice of this trillion-dollar industry.
“We have many of the pieces needed to become a leading player in autonomous vehicle technology and, ultimately (speaking kind of selfishly), for our area to really benefit from it in terms of a better quality of life,” said Oshoma Momoh, chief technical advisor at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District.
Canada is not like California or Arizona, where fleets of highly-automated vehicles are seen testing on public streets year-round. Autonomous vehicles on our roads will have to deal with the worst weather and the slipperiest conditions.
Autonomous and connected car development is happening on public and private fronts in Ontario, all at once. Major automakers already established in the province are looking for new business and investment opportunities here. General Motors opened a lab at Communitech, a startup incubator in Waterloo, as well as a technical centre in Markham to focus on software development.
Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury brand, has hosted the second Infiniti Lab Toronto, a competitive six-week accelerator program for startups. The most promising new companies could attract investment and support from the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance’s U.S. $1-billion venture capital fund.
“Toronto is one of the leading startup ecosystems globally,” commented Francois Dossa, head of the fund, in the program’s announcement.
The provincial government’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN) is creating six regional technology development sites to foster smaller companies in the autonomous car space, and connect them to major automotive and tech industry players.
The MaRS Discovery District in downtown Toronto is one of the sites. It will focus on artificial intelligence for autonomous vehicles. The Durham site will focus on human-machine interface and user experience. Hamilton will focus on multi-modal and integrated mobility. Ottawa will focus on networks and communication. London/Windsor will concentrate on cyber security and cross-border tech, and Waterloo will work on high-definition mapping and localization. Each site is already partnered with local universities and will receive in-kind support from industry.
“The idea being,” said Momoh, “that as a company working on autonomous vehicles, you can engage with any one of these regional technology development sites. It makes it easier to test your ideas, get feedback and hopefully build partnerships that help you go to market.”
He described the sites as something like a co-working space with expertise, advice, specialized shared hardware, opportunity for networking and collaboration, and a direct link to automakers and industry suppliers.
“Imagine you have cars — self-driving or partially self-driving — going around on test tracks or city streets. There’s lots of sensor data coming in from many cameras, lidars,” Momoh explained. “We think there’s a need to have a shared data set, to collect the sub-set of data that everyone’s comfortable sharing with each other, and make it available to all the players.”
It could then be used by a startup to, for example, train a machine-learning algorithm to correctly identity a lane marking versus a pile of snow.
Creating autonomous cars that can reliably see through falling snow back lit by morning sun and sensors that don’t get blinded by a blizzard, are among the next big hurdles facing the autonomous car industry. Researchers in wintry climates naturally understand the issues because they have to deal with them day-to-day.
The six development sites should give Ontario a leg up in the ultra-competitive global race to develop autonomous vehicles. The worldwide economic impact of which, according to a study by Intel, could be worth US$7 trillion by 2050. Another report, by Zion Market Research, estimated the global driverless car market will be worth US$26.6 billion by 2024.
“If you look across jurisdictions that have an automotive sector in the world, they’re all looking into this space and investing heavily,” said Raed Kadri, director of automotive technology and mobility innovation at Ontario Centres of Excellence, the provincial agency responsible for the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network.
Toronto is already home to one of the highest concentrations of artificial-intelligence startups in the world.
Uber, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, NVIDIA and Samsung have all recently expanded or opened offices in this city.
The province is also home to world-class universities and world-class talent, like University of Toronto professor Raquel Urtasun who leads Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group in Toronto.
In addition, Ontario already has a large auto manufacturing sector, something Silicon Valley does not. Combined, more than two-million vehicles are assembled every year in Canadian plants owned by Ford, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Honda and Toyota. They’re supported by a local network of nearly 700 suppliers.
“A lot of the large companies that are in Silicon Valley are next coming to Ontario and saying, ‘how can we participate in Ontario’s ecosystem?’ because it is that strong,” Kadri said.
The goal of the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network, and the six new technology development sites, is to connect all of these disparate strengths, to create bridges between them, in order to — so the theory goes — secure Ontario’s place as a leader in the booming autonomous-vehicle industry.
One would hope that having so much knowledge, expertise, and investment in the autonomous car industry here would also spur all levels of government to enact good regulatory frameworks for these new technologies in a timely fashion. That way, drivers and potentially all road users stand to benefit sooner rather than later.
The larger point of all this goes beyond the immediate objectives of sustaining and growing Ontario’s auto and tech industries. The payoff for regular drivers won’t come in the next model-year, but maybe five or 10 years down the road.
“We already live in this incredibly congested city, and we’ve got more people coming in every day, and we expect the congestion is only going to get worse, at least for the next little while,” said Oshoma Momoh. “How do we live better? I think it’s safety, faster commutes, or at least less stressful commutes, less pollution, less waste-creating vehicles that sit idle for 80 per cent of the day. There are so any potential benefits.”
In and of themselves, autonomous cars and ride sharing and vague talk of innovation are not solutions to the problems we face getting around; combined with the right urban planning and policy though, they just might be.
It’s still early days for self-driving cars, and the future is far from certain, but at least it won’t all be decided for us in Silicon Valley.