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Raghavender Sahdev is CEO of NuPort Robotics, a Toronto-based AI startup involved in a new partnership along with Canadian Tire to advance autonomous-vehicle technologies.RICHARD SIBBALD/Handout

Earlier this week, the government of Ontario announced a $3-million partnership that seeks to bolster the province’s contribution to the development of autonomous-vehicle technologies.

The project – which includes $1-million contributions each from Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN), Canadian Tire and Toronto-based AI startup NuPort Robotics – will test a first-of-its-kind autonomous-truck technology.

“The goal is to demonstrate automated technology in a predetermined set of routes, which will enable us to showcase quantitatively that these systems are more efficient, safer and enhance the driver experience,” explains Raghavender Sahdev, the CEO of NuPort Robotics. “Our goal is to put Ontario and Canada on the world map when it comes to automated technologies.”

Mr. Sahdev says that the project focuses on the “middle mile,” or the short-haul route transportation vehicles take between distribution centres, warehouses and terminals every day. He adds that improving driver efficiency through automated-trucking technologies can improve safety, reduce carbon emissions and lower maintenance and repair costs. “Because we know what the route looks like, we can deploy state-of-the-art machine-learning and autonomous-driving algorithms, which then allow us to improve performance,” he says.

The project will include retrofitting two conventional semi-tractor trailers with high-tech sensors and controls, introducing additional safety features such as obstacle and collision avoidance.

“The main purpose for all of this technology is increased safety,” explains Raed Kadri, the head of AVIN. “Developing and deploying these technologies – pushing them into being commercially ready – is important, because the more automation you have, the more potential for increased safety.”

Mr. Kadri adds that the technology being developed today is largely intended to assist human drivers, rather than replace them. He points to a chart released by the Society of Automotive Engineers in 2018 that outlines their definition for the six degrees of automation, with zero representing vehicles with no autonomous features and five representing full autonomy.

“Right now, if you look at where we’re at in terms of vehicles, we’re just getting into level three,” he says, explaining that driverless cars for everyday consumers remain within the realm of science fiction, for now. “This is not about removing the driver; this is about building up the automated features.”

The promise of fully autonomous technology, however, is alluring on many fronts. Firstly, they have the potential to significantly reduce vehicle-related fatalities, which are responsible for roughly 1.35 million deaths each year, according to the CDC. They could also reduce fuel consumption by as much as 44 per cent for passenger vehicles and 18 per cent for trucks, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Autonomous vehicles will one day make our roads safer, our transportation sector more environmentally sustainable and our goods more affordable, but that day is still a long way off, despite what some automakers say.

“I don’t see Tesla having a truly self-driving car any time soon,” says University of Waterloo electrical and computer engineering professor Dr. Krzysztof Czarnecki. “They use the [self-driving] label, but it’s not happening for many years, even though Elon Musk said last year it would happen by the end of this year. There’s no way.”

Despite recent advancements, autonomous-vehicle technology is still in its infancy, and progress has been incremental. It often comes down to basic economics; autonomous-vehicle development projects are very expensive, and typically lack a sustainable, short-term business model. That is why many are looking at the trucking and logistics industry, which has an immediate need for safety enhancing semi-autonomous technologies, as a primary opportunity for early innovations.

Dr. Czarnecki adds that the only truly autonomous-vehicle project currently on the road is Waymo’s driverless robo-taxi fleet in Arizona, but it will be a long time before taxi fares can make up for the high cost of research and development. In fact, last year Uber gave up on its autonomous-car division, Uber ATG, and sold off all of its autonomous-vehicle assets.

Waymo has a driverless robo-taxi fleet operating in Arizona, which Dr. Czarnecki says is the only truly autonomous-vehicle project currently on the road.Eric Risberg/The Associated Press

“You literally have to spend billions every year for another number of years before this technology might become a product, so it was too much for them,” says Dr. Czarnecki. “It’s a losing business at this point.”

Where Dr. Czarnecki is more optimistic, however, is in the development of autonomous-trucking technologies. “There is a pretty good business case in the sense that there’s a huge shortage of truck drivers,” he says. “The other aspect is, doing long-haul-trucking tours, there’s a safety aspect in terms of the need for rest and sleep that would not be there if it was a robot.”

Roughly 70 per cent of domestic freight is transported by truck, according to Statistics Canada, but the industry is facing an imminent talent shortage. Vacancies in the industry reached 6.8 per cent in 2019, more than double the national average, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, and the industry is looking to autonomous solutions to help make up the talent shortage.

Dr. Czarnecki adds that autonomous trucks could also operate at night when roads are less congested, without concern for driver fatigue or sleep deprivation.

Despite his more tempered expectations for autonomous-driving technologies, Dr. Czarnecki believes AVIN is an important initiative for encouraging more homegrown innovation in an emerging field.

“I sound skeptical because the problem is so challenging, but in my mind, this technology is coming no matter what, it’s just a question of time,” he says. “Maybe it’s not coming as fast as some would like, but it’s coming, and we need companies to innovate in this space, and make sure Canada is not just watching from the sidelines.”

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