Edmonton can lead conversation on autonomous vehicles, city councillor says

Ready or not, autonomous vehicles may be coming soon to a road near you.

That’s the message one Edmonton city councillor had after seeing results of a survey of more than 2,500 people who experienced the new technology during a pilot project last fall.

The city tested electric autonomous shuttles at closed-off sites last October and November. People took one-kilometre rides that lasted six to seven minutes.

The first deployment of ELA (Electric Automation) was in the Blatchford area, where 881 passengers went for rides. ELA also spent time in the Old Strathcona area, at the University of Alberta’s Centre for Smart Transportation, at Chapelle Gardens and at Grey Cup festivities.

Coun. Andrew Knack said a report going before a city committee on Tuesday has some key findings.

“It [worked] at times and there were certain times where it didn’t work as they once thought,” Knack said. “There were learnings from that. So, I think that was good, because the whole idea was to get a better idea of how is it going to work in winter climates.”

Coun. Andrew Knack has lobbied for smart technology. (CBC)

Similar vehicles are already in operation in warmer locations like Phoenix, which launched an autonomous vehicle program in 2018.

Of the more the 2,500 people who rode ELA in Edmonton, 688 filled out the survey — and 94 per cent of respondents said they enjoyed the ride and felt safe.

But only 22 per cent said they would ride an autonomous vehicle on a freeway, and 30 per cent said speeds between 20 km/h and 40 km/h felt most comfortable.

Knack said he was surprised to see that so many people felt safe on the vehicles. 

“This technology is coming very quickly,” Knack said. “Whether we like it or not, it’s coming fast.”

The 12-passenger vehicles come equipped with a ramp, making them fully accessible. 

Smart technology allows vehicles to communicate with each other. The shuttles are able to connect and form larger chains, like the LRT. But they can also break off into separate pods people could ride home or to work.

When the pilot project launched it was noted that the fleet would require new infrastructure for about 80 per cent of potential routes. The vehicles are guided by LiDAR, a light-detecting surveying method that helps determine location. According to the latest report, an update is expected soon that would use GPS instead and would not require additional technology or infrastructure.

Knack said the biggest challenge will be adapting current road networks to the new technology.

“You probably have to start by dedicating certain lanes here and there for autonomous vehicles, versus trying to mix them in right away,” Knack said.

An ELA vehicle is operating in Beaumont on the roadways with other vehicles. Knack said he expects that will be the next step for Edmonton as well.

The shuttle can carry 12 passengers, and can accommodate strollers, walkers and wheelchairs. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

The may be an economic opportunity if the city can become a winter testing climate for the technology, Knack said.

“I would hope that we can pursue that. There are two ways we can approach it. We can wait until the very end and be [dragged] along kicking and screaming, or we can lead this conversation. More importantly, lead the policy conversation around it.”

with files from Natasha Riebe

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