The drive to put autonomous vehicles on the market has sped up over the last decade but that doesn't mean self-driving cars will be truly road-ready anytime soon.
"We are way far from that level where a machine can drive like humans in any conditions," said Amir Khajepour, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering at the University of Waterloo.
"Whether that will happen in my lifetime, I'm not sure."
In 2016, Ontario launched its Automated Vehicle Pilot Program. It recently expanded guidelines to allow some self-driving vehicles to be tested on certain roads without the help of someone behind the wheel.
The changes allow for a passenger in the vehicle or a remote operator, but there are still big hurdles to overcome.
The biggest, according to Khajepour, is making machines that mirror brain functioning when we drive, and that is far from easy. Add in debates about insurance and ethics, and it's clear there's a lot more to the industry than just technology.
"When we drive, we draw from many other experiences we have in our lives," said Khajepour.
Halloween, Christmas, snow among the challenges
Programming robots to react to real world situations has been a challenge and is inherently linked to safety, says Steve Waslander, an associate professor at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies specializing in AI perception.
"Where they still seem to be blocked is in … all the rare events, the weird situations, the infinite variety of the human world," he said.
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One example of that, Waslander says, is how self-driving cars can have a difficult time recognizing children in Halloween costumes. In an effort to improve that, Google's self-driving car project, a subsidiary called Waymo, recently had its employees' kids parade in front of their cars in their Halloween costumes so its sensors could collect more information.
Christmas lights can also present a challenge as can winter weather, Waslander says.
On top of that, autonomous cars aren't yet equipped to handle driving like humans, who give sometimes subtle cues to other drivers to signal their intention such as inching forward at an intersection to make a right turn.
"It's amazing all the things we do in parallel as we're moving through the environment, and to get to that point has been a much bigger challenge than we expected," said Waslander.
Electric, ethics and insurance
But technology and software aren't the only considerations for the sector; there's a whole "ecosystem" of factors to take into account, as Khajepour puts it. Engineers have the added job of debating the ethics of creating artificial intelligence and working out who's responsible if an autonomous vehicle crashes. Although rare so far, it does happen.
On Dec. 16, an autonomous bus in Durham Region. that makes a six-kilometre loop ending at the Whitby GO station veered off the road and hit a tree. A 23-year-old attendant inside suffered critical injuries and was sent to a trauma centre for treatment.
The attendant was the only person in the vehicle at the time.
Still, situations like this raise the question of who is responsible in the event of an accident.
"They're looking at ways [like] extending no-fault insurance to autonomous vehicles or by treating the autonomous vehicle as a driver," said Waslander.
Because of these debates, we'll likely be seeing self-driving vehicles in controlled environments in the near future, like on campuses, in malls and warehouses, including at the University of Waterloo.
Khajepour and his team developed the technology used in the WATonoBus, a self-driving shuttle that makes a 2.7-kilometre loop around the campus at a maximum speed of 20 kilometres per hour.
A driver is still on board during test runs, but the team is waiting for approval from the province to start driverless trials under the Automated Vehicle Pilot Program.
Khajepour and Waslander both say we could also see self-driving trucks on highways sooner than cars on city streets because there are fewer unpredictable factors to consider, like pedestrians and cyclists.
Raed Kadri, the vice president of strategic initiatives and head of the Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network (OVIN), which connects researchers with industry, points out there is another factor: electric vehicles, which presents other challenges.
A 2020 paper published by Carnegie Mellon University researchers found driverless cars use more energy than cars requiring drivers, which reduced driving range and required more charging. Researchers are now looking at how drivers feel about the decreased range.
"As we push toward electric, that will become the new platform we'll add new technologies on—new automated features and connectivity features," said Kadri.