Autonomous cars will be on some Hamilton Mountain Roads for technology test program

Autonomous vehicles will be on some Hamilton Mountain roads next year under a test program endorsed by councillors Monday.

The program will use some streets on the south Mountain as testing areas to see how technology used for autonomous cars can be integrated into the “real world.”

That means autonomous vehicles will be on the road with regular cars, but there will be someone in them, ready to take over if necessary, or controlling some aspects of the car.

Hamilton has been selected as one of six  “regional technology demonstration sites” after a vote from city council’s public works committee Monday. Six streets will be a “public test bed” as chosen by Hamilton’s regional innovation centre — the Innovation Factory’s Centre for Integrated Transportation and Mobility.

According to the report, having a public testing area would allow start-ups and the innovation centre to “test communication and sensor technology in a live urban environment without impacting live city service.” 

Edward Soldo, director of transportation operations and maintenance, says there will be people in the vehicles during the test phase.

“These vehicles have sensors that allow certain aspects to be self controlled,” he said, “but there’s always a driver in there to intervene if necessary.”

The testing areas, which would start in the city’s second quarter of 2020, include: 

  • Stone Church Road from Upper Gage Avenue to Dartnall Road.
  • Rymal Road from Upper Gage Avenue to Dartnall Road. 
  • Upper Gage Avenue from Stone Church Road to Rymal Road. 
  • Upper Ottawa Street from Stone Church Road to Rymal Road. 
  • Dartnall Road from Stone Church Road to Rymal Road.

Testing includes AI, sensors, noise tracking technology

John-Paul Danko, Ward 8 councillor, says the streets won’t be used as runways for autonomous vehicles. Instead, the “technology component” for integrating such cars will undergo testing. 

“[The different] systems will be on a platform that’s on that track that’s sending data back in real time to the control centre,” he said. “At least this my interpretation of it. It’s not an entire car driving itself around.”  

“It’s more research into the technologies involved and further developing how this could work in an urban setting.” 

Safety drivers

David Carter, executive director at the Innovation Factory, told CBC that autonomous vehicles could run on the test roads, though those wanting to test cars must be granted a licence by MTO. The city does not have the power to approve or deny the licences. He also said any test cars used would have safety drivers in them. He says the star of the testing is the sensors themselves. 

“[The senors] have temperature, humidity, acoustic, and cameras. So there are a variety of uses that they can be used for in testing,” he said.

“The equipment will serve as a living lab.”

The systems being tested, according to the report, include:  

  • Artificial intelligence (“AI”) to analyze data and interactions between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. 
  • AI and sensors to analyze types of vehicles and usage patterns along the testing area. 
  • Noise tracking technology. 
  • Vehicle-to-vehicle communication testing.
  • Vehicle-to-infrastructure communication testing. 
  • Smart traffic signal technology.

In order to test the systems, hardware would have to be installed in city-owned street lighting and traffic poles. The innovation centre is currently investigating logistics and would enter into an agreement with the city to allow for the changes. Safeguards would ensure no personally identifiable data is collected.

The sensors could broadcast a near freezing road condition to an autonomous car. But the sensors can also go beyond car usage — the city could use cameras to see if a pedestrian has cleared a crossing before the opposing red light turns green. 

The report recommends that the general manager of public works be authorized to arrange “any agreements necessary to formalize the partnership” between the city and the centre. 

The Centre for Integrated Transportation and Mobility would cover any fees associated with deploying, maintaining, and operating technology in the testing areas. (Innovation Factory/Twitter)

Province and Innovation centre to fund

The province would provided funding as part of its Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network until 2022, with additional funding released on a yearly basis. The innovation centre would cover any costs to the city related to deploying, maintaining, and operating the testing site. 

The report says it’s anticipated that the public tests will continue until the provincial funding ends. 

If the city decides to integrate its traffic systems into the project, capital funding is available. 

The ministry of transportation passed a regulation in 2016 that allowed testing of autonomous vehicles in Ontario. The innovation centre engaged Hamilton last fall. 

Autonomous cars driven on Ontario roads must have SAE level 3 technology — Conditional Automation — which means that a driver has to be behind the wheel and ready to control the car at all times. 

‘I think it’s definitely a win’ says councillor 

Danko said that testing systems associated with this new technology would be an opportunity for Hamilton return to its roots. 

“I’m pretty excited about it. This is a high-technology industry that is setting up shop in Hamilton that we’re helping facilitate,” he said. “It speaks back to our history as a manufacturing city.” 

He added that supporting the project leads to the kind of well-paying jobs that the city is trying to attract. 

“I think it’s definitely a win for us as a city, as a whole, and for tax-payers.”

The report says the project would allow the city to better understand how this technology would be integrated into the system and the kind of data and communication requirements involved. It also says it would give the city a chance to evaluate what autonomous cars look like in the “real world” and how it will benefit and impact the public. 

The city will be able to keep all of the testing equipment when the funding ends. 

A private testing area at McMaster Innovation Park and Can-Met building will be implemented before the public one potentially gets on its way next year. 

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