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What Toronto is hoping to achieve with autonomous vehicles

What Toronto is hoping to achieve with autonomous vehicles

The City of Toronto recently released and approved a plan to get the city ready for autonomous vehicles (AV) by 2022, dubbed the Automated Vehicles Tactical Plan and Readiness 2022 report.

Although the likelihood of AV technology being ready for full deployment by that time is extremely low, preparing for the next wave of technology can be a key step in getting ahead of the curve.

We spoke with a couple of experts in the field to help us break down the more than 200 pages in the report.

There are seven major categories in the report: social equity and health, environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, privacy, road safety and security, integrated mobility, and transportation system efficiency (which we decided to skip in this article, as it is practically encapsulated by the other categories).

Social equity and health

The city wants to establish a fleet of vehicles that are available through an autonomous rideshare system. Whether that becomes available directly through the city or if it will be accessible through already established systems like Uber and Lyft is yet to be revealed.

This will ensure “barrier-free access, increased mobility equity, and the promotion of health through tactics that look at marginalized groups, access to mobility, and integrating health equity into automated vehicle policies,” the report reads.

This could also lead to a cost-per-mile reduction, which allows those from a lower financial standing to access the transportation they need without breaking the bank, said Carmine Pizzurro, the chief executive officer for eCamion, a solution provider in the energy storage space.

Carmine Pizzurro said that the price for electric vehicles is due to drop in the next few years. Credit: eCamion

“You need to afford a car. Which means you need to afford car payments. You need to afford maintenance, insurance, and a place to park it in Toronto, which is in itself, pretty expensive,” said Pizzurro in an interview with IT World Canada. “If all of it was an autonomous rideshare program, then the cost per kilometres driven is much smaller.”

Pizzurro said he believes another way that a cost reduction can be achieved is by implementing electric vehicles into the autonomous ridesharing system. The price of such vehicles, he added, is expected to drop significantly over the next three to five years, especially as the technology becomes more widely adopted.

“With the mass adoption of electric cars and mass adoption of autonomous electric cars… it will reduce the cost per mile driven. And once the cost per mile driven falls below a certain level, it becomes a lot more affordable for people of different social strata to be able to adopt that kind of transportation mode,” said Pizzurro.

Environmental sustainability

One way the city plans to achieve this, according to the report, is by implementing environmentally sustainable technologies that incentive “low or zero-carbon energy sources and reducing the amount of waste produced across the lifecycle of AVs.”

Electric cars are one option, and as previously mentioned, this technology should be more affordable in the near future. Their performance, however, during the winter season is still questionable.

Another avenue that the city is considering is retrofitting existing vehicles to allow them to operate as autonomous vehicles.

But Pizzurro said he has experience in attempting such a project, and said it is simply not a viable solution.

He took part in a project that involved customizing police vehicles so that they could continue to operate devices like the built-in computer without a need to idle the vehicle’s engine.

He said they quickly found out how expensive, complicated, and time-consuming such an attempt is.

“To retrofit that in a car is a huge undertaking because you will have to get involved in the operating system of the car, into the electrical system of the car. And just for a simple turning off the ignition and sticking in auxiliary power was a big deal,” said Pizzurro. “In the case of autonomous vehicles, you have to bring in all the sensors and things that are incorporated into the operating system. And that is a lot more integration than just what simple things we were doing. And that was a huge task.”

Economic sustainability

Jesika Briones said that Toronto provides a unique testing grounds for AVs. Credit: MaRS

The City of Toronto has in recent times become quite the tech hub; even going so far as to surpass previous superpowers like San Francisco.

As it continues to grow, the potential introduction of self-driving cars could be a major attraction for tech talent, whether that be organizations or individuals. Such projects become all the more attractive when coupled with the unique environmental factors that Toronto provides to such an endeavor, said Jesika Briones, the senior manager of autonomous and connected vehicles at the MaRS Discovery District.

“It’s a mecca for talent. This is a huge concentration of talent from diverse backgrounds. Highly populated and growing. It’s also a very diverse kind of environment,” said Briones in an interview with IT World Canada.

The diversity she speaks to is not just diversity in peoples, but also a diversity in weather, something Briones says is not always available when testing such tech.

“It gives opportunities in terms of weather. People that are coming here get access to all sorts of weather. All the tests are happening during the day in sunny areas like San Fran and California,” said Briones.

Pizzurro also says that instead of going through more established automobile manufacturers like General Motors, leveraging startup ecosystems can be extremely beneficial to the development of disruptive technologies like AVs.

“The traditional OEM car manufacturer process… they have this entire legacy product and legacy embedded investments that they need to take into account when they migrate from one platform to the other,” said Pizzurro. “That’s why I think it’s much better to work with autonomous vehicles startups because now you’re no longer dealing with any legacy baggage. You’re directly working on a disruptive model that can be started from scratch and built it up the way it would build up if it was truly an autonomous vehicle.”


Finally, we find ourselves at the hot button issue.

What data will self-driving cars collect? How will it be used? And can you adequately opt-out from certain data sets or opt-out entirely while still using the system? These are the questions at the top of many people’s minds.

Because the city has yet to outline a framework outlining these issues, there is not much to be decimated at this time.

But for those within the industry, like Briones, there is a clear vision of how such a framework would be established in a perfect world, and she says the City of Toronto will have to maintain a similar view.

“You definitely want to have a holistic approach in mind in terms of bigger challenges. So it’s how to make better use of infrastructure and data in order to be able to make transit a priority. The city will have to work with data and understand and collect data, in order to be able to not only analyze the information but also to start growing best practices,” said Briones.

Briones points to a code of ethics that were established in Germany, which very clearly lays out how individuals can decide on the data that is collected about them, and even gives users the ability to opt-out entirely.

Road safety and security

Many people want to know: “Are we truly safe if we leave something as consequential as road safety in the hands of robots?”

Beyond the fact that the world’s most accomplished experts in the field are working hard every day to ensure the safety of AVs, Pizzurro questions how leaving road safety in the hands of highly-developed and fine-tuned technology is any more dangerous than leaving it in the hands of human beings, especially teenagers who have taken only a written test before hitting the road.

“When you’re a 16-year-old, you go in and you pass an examination and you basically have the ability to drive. Natural intelligence allows you to drive,” said Pizzurro. “So are they (AVs) a risk? Absolutely. There are risks. But it’s no different than a natural intelligence driver where our lives are in the hands of a 16-year-old.”

Fully autonomous vehicles would also eliminate the risk of intoxicated people endangering the public by getting behind the controls of a vehicle.

Despite this presumed level of safety, the City said in its documents that it plans to put a lot of time and effort into identifying and analyzing “policies, technology, standards, and training required to achieve improved safety overall.”

By putting in the time to adequately research this area, the city also hopes to update infrastructure and emergency response tactics in the process.

Integrated mobility

Even once the city has adequately researched and prepared for all the previous categories, it still leaves the greatest challenge of them all, says Briones.

“From a large scale… the biggest challenge is trying to create an integrated mobility plan like they highlighted in the report. You want to develop an approach that takes into consideration all sorts of transportations and multimodal transportation. You do want to take into consideration an approach that considers different points from an urban planning perspective where cities are designed for all sorts of people and all sorts of mobility in mind.”


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