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In this Dec. 13, 2016, file photo, an Uber driverless car waits in traffic during a test drive in San Francisco.Eric Risberg/The Associated Press

When I heard about a driverless Uber hitting a pedestrian in Arizona, I was surprised (and alarmed) to hear that driverless cars were allowed on public roads. Are driverless cars allowed on Canadian roads? And will that change after this? My understanding was that these cars are only allowed on closed tracks. – Lin, Calgary

Ontario is the only province allowing driverless cars to be tested on public roads and there are no limits to where they can go, or when.

“Ontario’s pilot framework does not limit AVs to select roadways or highways,” said Bob Nichols, Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) spokesman, in an e-mail. “All existing HTA rules of the road/laws, including speed limits and penalties, will apply to the driver/vehicle owner there are no exceptions.”

Ontario launched a 10-year pilot in 2016 that allows driverless cars to take to the streets, but it requires them to have a licensed driver in the driver’s seat at all times. It also requires “all participants” to have at least $5-million in insurance.

Several companies, including Uber, have tested in Ontario. But Uber has taken its driverless cars off the road in Toronto and other cities while investigators probe the death of the pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., last month. Elaine Herzberg, 49, was hit by the autonomous Uber with a safety driver behind the wheel.

For now, Ontario is not changing its policy, Nichols said.

“We are following the situation in Arizona closely, and will consider what measures are appropriate as more becomes known,” Nichols said.

Uber had been conducting “limited” on-road testing in Toronto, Nichols said.

“All companies testing autonomous technology on our roads are expected to follow a strict set of guidelines and rules designed to provide the utmost safety for all road users,” Nichols said. “We regularly communicate with our pilot-program participants about safety.”

BlackBerry QNX tested a driverless car in Ottawa Canada’s first test on a public road last year.

“When we tested our self-driving concept car in autonomous mode last October, it was on a closed public street,” BlackBerry spokesman Matthew Chandler said in an e-mail. “Running the vehicle in autonomous mode doesn’t help us test frameworks or collect data. We can do this with an engineer behind the wheel.”

Ottawa’s driverless car test track in Kanata North is on open city roads, but the city said it’s “in an environment free from schools, residences and high pedestrian concentrations.”

Levels of autonomy

The pilot allows testing of Level 3, 4 and 5 autonomous cars on the six-level scale defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Cars require a safety driver. Outside of the testing programs, they can’t be registered and driven on Ontario roads.

So, what are the levels?

Level 0 is for cars with no automation at all and includes cars with normal cruise control.

For Level 1, the autonomous technology only works with driver assistance this includes adaptive cruise control, which keeps a set distance from the car in front of you, and lane-keeping assist, which can steer a car to keep it within the lines of the road.

Level 2 is partial automation and includes Tesla Autopilot. Level 2 tech can manage both your speed and steering but it’s not self-driving. “Don’t buy the hype that these are fully self-driving cars,” wrote journalist Justin Hughes. “They can only drive themselves at certain times under certain conditions.”

Level 3 is conditional automation. An example is Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot. Cars start to make decisions, but a human still needs to take over above certain speeds.

Level 4 is high automation the car drives itself most of the time, but it still needs a driver for some situations, such as in terrible weather.

Finally, Level 5 is full automation the cars don’t need a human behind the wheel at all. This is what Google’s Waymo is working on.

Ontario has proposed allowing fully driverless cars to be tested on the road, without a safety driver.

Driverless cars still safer?

Executives from Toyota, Kia and Mercedes-Benz talked about autonomous cars and the Arizona death at a panel discussion before the Vancouver Auto Show in March.

“How prepared are we as a society for a situation where [driverless] cars will kill people?” asked Stephen Beatty, Toyota Canada vice-president. “It’s going to take a very broad public debate before we see autonomous vehicles operate outside of a geo-fenced neighbourhood.”

So, for now, should we allow be allowing driverless cars to be tested on public roads at all?

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Paul Godsmark, chief technology officer with the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

In Canada in 2015, the most recent year with data, 1,858 people were killed in motor-vehicle accidents. Once they’re fully ready, autonomous cars could ultimately reduce collision deaths by 80 per cent, Godsmark said.

“If we say no testing on open roads, we’ll prolong the length of time that it takes this technology to get deployed and while we’re doing that, 1.25 million people a year are killed by cars worldwide,” Godsmark said. “If we say yes, we have the risk that people will be killed at a higher rate than normal because [the technology is] just not ready.”

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