How a Toronto company is making self-driving technology a reality on our roads

How a Toronto company is making self-driving technology a reality on our roads

X-Matik founder and CEO Nima Ashtari sits behind the steering wheel of a cargo van while it drives itself down the Don Valley Parkway.

"So all I do is hit a button ... and let it go," he says.

His company, which started in 2015, creates kits, called LaneCruise, that can be added to any car made in the last 20 years to turn it into a semi-automated vehicle. 

It's not for your average driver, though — it's for professionals only, including those who drive limos and delivery vans. It must be monitored all the time, it can't change lanes yet and, ideally, it works best with highway driving.

Ashtari says his product is designed to lessen the drudgery of being behind the wheel all day. 

"At the job site, when I arrive, I'm going to be this much better at my job, because I wasn't doing this super boring, put-me-to-sleep job," the 33-year-old former Tesla engineer explains.

Watch CBC reporter Ieva Lucs as she finds out how autonomous driving tech works on the road

"That's really what automation's all about — it's about replacing the most mundane parts of our lives." 

In 2018, the City of Toronto used LaneCruise during a provincially-funded pilot program. In January, the Ontario government started allowing the public purchase of up to Level 3 technology — where the vehicle becomes the co-pilot, one step above the LaneCruise. The city now has 10 vehicles in its fleet fitted out with the kits. 

Paul Borkwood/CBC

The kit consists of hardware that attaches to your steering wheel and brake, as well as a camera, all of which are connected to a computer.

Once it's activated, the computer takes over, observing the road through the camera and gently adjusting the wheel when it sees a bend in the road, or putting on the brake when the car in front slows down.

The system is, at times, hesitant — slowing down quickly when a car stops or slows in front of it, but slow to speed back up when traffic gets moving again. A couple of frustrated drivers honk at the van as it creeps along the right lane of the highway. 

"People are very aggressive and the system is very conservative," Ashtari explains, adding this is the main complaint customers have.

However, the software is meant to get better at driving as more data is fed into the master computer back at the company's headquarters, nestled in a suburban home in Ashtari's own childhood neighbourhood in North York.

1 million km of data gathered

So far, X-Matik has gathered about one million kilometres of data, and it's accumulating 5,000 to 10,000 more a month through its customers, he says.

"It will observe and then it will make predictions based on what it's seen other humans do and what it's learned from observing other humans drive," Ashtari says.

The kit costs about $4,000 and has a monthly operating fee of $50 to $100, which includes regular software updates and real time support to customers.

Paul Borkwood/CBC

Ashtari says he has no interest in selling the product for passenger vehicles because there's a danger of non-professional drivers getting lazy behind the wheel. But he's confident the future of driving is for professional use. 

"Less of our time is spent going out to get stuff, and more of it is people bringing stuff to us ... that's actually where the focus of the technology should be, is on those vehicles that do more of the driving on the roads today," he says. 

'It's the future'

Vehicles range in their autonomy from Level 0 to Level 5. 

With a Level 0, there is no automation. 

"It's the Model-T Ford being driven around in the year 2020," says Colin Dhillon, chief technical officer for the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association.

Level 1 means a human driver is needed for all critical functions but there are some intelligent features.

For a Level 2, there is some control, but it can replace the driver at times. It requires drivers to stay fully alert and engaged while behind the wheel.

X-Matik is one of the few companies in the world offering an aftermarket kit at this level of autonomy. Tesla offers autonomy at this level for its passenger vehicles, but for a much higher price, as you have to buy the car first.

The goal for X-Matik is to provide a Level 3 update to the software in the next two years. That will let drivers take their eyes off the road for an extended period of time.

Dhillon says we're probably less than five years away from seeing Level 3 and 4 cars on the road. Level 4 is fully self driving technology with the ability for the human to take over.

At Level 5, there is no steering wheel and no foot pedals. 

"It's absolutely and utterly being driven by a robot," explains Dhillon.

Toronto is working on a plan to make city streets ready for driverless technology by 2022. 

"It's the future," Dhillon says. 

The reason, he says, is safety. 

"Ninety-four per cent of all accidents are because of human error. And the reason we've all moved toward these semi-autonomous vehicles is to make the roads and the vehicles and the ecosystem a lot safer."