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How Canada Became North America's Autonomous Car Proving Grounds

NEWS BITES / 12.18.19 / Sam Bocetta

"In 10 years, I think, almost all cars produced would be autonomous. It will be like having a horse. People have horses, which is cool. There will be people who have non-autonomous cars, like people have horses. It would just be unusual to use that as a mode of transport."
~ Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, speaking at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting, 2017.

The race is on to produce the first commercially available autonomous vehicle (AV), and Canada has been chosen as a proving ground.

Why Canada?

Aside from the fact that it's a great country that values innovation, let us count the ways.

Spotlight on Canada

The country is proud to be on the forefront of driverless car development and testing and has the street cred to back up their place at the edge of tomorrow's technology. The KPMG Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index recently rated Canada #7 out of 20 countries in terms of autonomous vehicle readiness.

As stated by Gary Webster, the publication's expert on driverless car infrastructure, "Southern Ontario has a perfect ecosystem to support research and testing."

But what makes Canada so renowned as a testing ground?

Not only does the country have modern, well-maintained roadways, a recent Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN) study rated the area high in categories that include solid urban planning. Note that there are many growing industries that are going to benefit from this type of automation, including health care, logistics, and insurance.

Ontario, in particular, leads the way in this type of investment in the future. The first public test of an autonomous vehicle was conducted in October of 2017. The vehicle was running a QNX OS, and participants included Mayor Jim Watson. As of January of 2019, the province has granted permission for seven companies, including Blackberry subsidiary QNX, Continental, Magna, and Uber, to test their respective vehicles on public roadways, albeit under very strict conditions.

Probably the most famous entrepreneur developing driverless cars is Elon Musk. Unlike other tech geniuses who prefer to remain behind the scenes, like Ron Jones, Elon seems to make a new media splash every few months.

So far, Ontario is the only province in Canada to officially approve testing. However, with the approval of testing comes issues and concerns along with best practices and ideal testing grounds.

Autonomous Vehicle Testing and Liability

Although Canada placed pretty high on the list, there were a few factors that kept them from ranking higher. For one thing, other countries, including the U.S., UK, and China, have a higher number of vehicle charging stations. Some cities, like Detroit, have decades of car design, production, and testing experience. In addition to the Big Three American car companies, the state of Michigan, which is right across the river from Windsor, Ontario, also boasts a major Toyota plant.

The idea of driverless vehicles roaming the road is raising some concerns. A major factor is the question of liability. When a traditional car is involved in an accident, the driver is often at fault.

But what if the car is the driver?

This concept may be entering semi-uncharted legal territory. So far, the closest comparison is with case law involving equestrian accidents. Ultimately, the Ministry of Transportation in Ontario determined that, although the cars are self-driving, the owner of the vehicle holds final liability for any collisions.

The regulation regarding operation and liability states:

"Automated vehicles equipped with SAE Level 3 technology that are available for public purchase in Canada can be driven on Ontario roads. These vehicles are no longer be restricted to registered pilot participants. A human driver is required at all times to take back the driving task when alerted to do so by the vehicle.

Drivers need to be in full care and control of vehicles with SAE Level 3 technology and all existing laws (such as distracted, careless, and impaired driving laws) continue to apply to drivers of these vehicles. Drivers are responsible for the safe operation of these vehicles at all times."

However, some legal analysts fear that issues of liability could lead to actions against manufacturers, AV software developers, and any commercial business that own the vehicles, such as cab and delivery companies. In addition, there are residual concerns about the integrity of the technology itself.

At their base, self-driven vehicles are Internet of Things (IoT) devices, with all of the attendant issues surrounding the security of AI and networked systems. As with any IoT device, security is a major concern. One way to protect driverless cars from cybersecurity threats is to implement the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). Onboard software allow manufacturers to take advantage of VPN features that encrypt data and hide location, in this case making it harder to trace the vehicle or interfere in its operation.

What Makes an Ideal Testing Ground for Autonomous Vehicles?

The studies rated different locations on four main criteria:

1) Policies and investment marked for autonomous vehicle development. The government in Ontario has authorized $80 million to be released over a five-year period in an effort to promote connected and driverless commercial vehicles, hold Ontario up as an industry leader, and develop local tech talent.

On the urban planning side of the equation, engineers are ready to tie self-driving cars into an overall plan for greening Canada. These vehicles have the capability of dropping passengers at their destination and picking them up later, meaning less need for parking. This allows concrete jungles to be transformed to accommodate bicycles and get rid of large, multi-storied parking garages.

2) Advancements in innovation and technology in general, thanks to tech companies and related corporations. They're also close to implementing 5G technology, which is a game-changer for powering these vehicles.

3) R&D, such as investing in top-notch roads and infrastructure. It's a little-known fact that Canada is the fourth leading car importer worldwide, and the country hosts major manufacturing plants, supply chains, and production facilities. These include two of the Big Three, GM and Ford, in addition to Honda, Fiat, and Toyota.

4) Public readiness and acceptance of driverless vehicles.

Any hesitancy on the part of the public may simply be due to misunderstandings about what artificial intelligence (AI) is and how it works. What many don't realize is that AI is already present in our lives every day.

Final Thoughts

We may not be there yet, but Canada is on the right path toward becoming a leader in supporting this technology over the next decade.

Sam Bocetta

About Sam Bocetta

Security Researcher & Freelance Journalist

Sam Bocetta is a freelance journalist specializing in U.S. diplomacy and national security, with emphases on technology trends in cyberwarfare, cyberdefense, and cryptography. 

Previously, Sam worked as a security analyst for the DoD, and spent 30-plus years bolstering cyber defenses for the Navy. Much of his work involved penetration testing Navy ballistic systems. He also helped plan, manage and execute sophisticated "ethical" hacking exercises to identify vulnerabilities and reduce the risk posture of enterprise systems.

Sam is now semi-retired and educates the public about security and privacy technology. He is currently writing his first book about democratizing personal privacy solutions for the broader public, due for publication in early 2021.