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The Waterloo Centre for Autonomous Research self-driving car drives on a test road near the University of Waterloo campus in September, 2016.

Picasa/Waterloo Centre for Autonomous Research

Three autonomous vehicles will begin travelling public roads in Ontario under a pilot program announced Monday.

The vehicles will be tested by the University of Waterloo's Centre for Automotive Research and Germany-based recreational vehicle manufacturer Erwin Hymer Group and BlackBerry Inc.

The move will put Ontario on the growing list of areas where autonomous vehicles are being tested as auto makers spend billions of dollars developing cars and trucks that will eventually be able to travel without a driver touching the steering wheel or the accelerator and brake pedals.

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For now, though, while the vehicles are being tested, Ontario requires that someone sit in the driver's seat and be ready to take control immediately if necessary.

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The province announced about a year ago that it would permit testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Testing on public roads could begin as early as next year for one or more of the vehicles.

Auto industry officials, safety advocates and governments believe roads and highways will be safer with autonomous vehicles because they will eliminate driver error, which is the cause of about 90 per cent of motor vehicle accidents.

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Autonomous vehicles are being tested throughout the world, but Ontario will become one of just a handful of locations in North America where such testing is happening.

Ride-sharing service Uber, for example, is testing a fleet of autonomous Volvo sport utility vehicles in Pittsburgh. An Uber driver is present in the vehicles if something goes awry.

Alphabet Inc.'s Google is testing self-driving cars in California and several auto makers are engaged in pilot projects in an urban test centre at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

But there are restrictions in California on where autonomous vehicles can be tested and the University of Michigan test centre does not include public roadways.

In Ontario, "any road is eligible," said Ross McKenzie, managing director of the University of Waterloo centre. "That's as flexible as you can get. When you combine that flexibility with our variable climate, that puts us at a distinct advantage."

The University of Waterloo centre will test a Lincoln MKZ called Autonomoose, which is being worked on by nine of the university's professors.

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Ontario officials are also trying to take advantage of what they believe is another competitive strength in the province – the geographic proximity of auto makers and their parts suppliers along the Oshawa-Windsor corridor and the information technology cluster in Waterloo, close to the heart of the auto corridor.

"We've got companies that know each other and work together," Mr. McKenzie said.

General Motors of Canada Ltd., opened a research office in Waterloo earlier this year as part of an expansion of its research and development activities in Canada.

Cars that don't require anyone at the wheel aren't expected to be widely available until after 2030, Sweden-based research firm Berg Insight said in a report issued last month.

The technologies that are leading to full self-driving are already prevalent in vehicles sold in Canada, including back-up cameras that warn drivers of objects behind them, lane-departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control, which automatically reduces the speed of a vehicle if the vehicle in front of it slows down.

Deaths caused by traffic accidents in Canada fell to 1,834 in 2014 from 1,951 a year earlier, but the Traffic Injury Research Foundation estimates the economic consequences of accidents at more than $25-billion annually.

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