Waterloo region is poised to be a leader in Canada's autonomous vehicle industry, according to three federal senators who visited the University of Waterloo Tuesday afternoon.

Senators Dennis Dawson, Art Eggleton and Pierre Boisvenu toured the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research before taking a turn behind the wheel of a driverless sedan.

"I'm very surprised by all the research they are doing here," Boisvenu said. "For Canada, it's a great thing. Now it's a matter of leadership. Who will keep the leadership: Is it the company? Is it the government? Is it the research centre?" 

WatCar driverless autonomous car demo

After visiting the automotive lab, the senators headed out to the test track to see a few of the centre's autonomous vehicles. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

He said that the technology for autonomous vehicles is developing at an alarming rate and governments in Europe and the United States are madly trying to keep up the pace by producing new legislation and regulations.

But here in Canada, Boisvenu said, there has been a lack of leadership and that has to changeor Canada will be left at the back of the pack.

Whatever form that leadership takes, he said it would likely involve Waterloo region based on what he had seen so far at the university.

Senator Dennis Dawson WatCar driverless car demo

Senator Dawson says autonomous vehicle technology is developing fast, but the legislation and regulatory process is not. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

"The link between company and university is very tight," he said. "If this kind of research is done inside a university without contact outside, then I would be afraid, but they work very closely to be sure everything that's done here will be applicable in the private sector."

Senate study

Boisvenu and his colleagues are members of the Senate Committee on Transport and Communication, which is studying the development and future impact of autonomous vehicles.

The study was commissioned in 2016 by the Minister of Transport as a precursor to regulating the industry.

"Sometimes governments are late in doing things. This time around, we're trying to come in as early as possible," Dawson said. "The technology is developing very fast, but the legislation and the regulatory process is not."

At present, there is no regulatory process, no established way for government to form relationships with business and no way to track the industry's growth.

"It's becoming a reality without there being any government controls," he said. "We don't know what is being done with the data that is being collected. We don't know how much people are preoccupied with security." 

WatCar driverless autonomous car demo

The Senate Committee on Transport and Communication is studying driverless vehicles so that the Minister of Transport can draft up future legislation. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

In addition to visiting the Centre for Autonomous Research, the committee has been hearing from a multitude of delegations. 

"The big issues are safety, security, building public confidence that these vehicles can work in a safe and secure manner," Eggleton said. 

Municipal leaders are also concerned about the ability of driverless vehicles to connect with city infrastructure, like traffic lights and stop signs. 

"That's something that is further down the road," he said, "but we need to – as Senator Dawson says – be ahead of the curve on this thing and make sure that we've addressed a lot of these issues."

As for whether people are ready to see a driverless car next to them on the street, Eggleton said "we're not there yet, but yes, that day could come." 

In the meantime, he says politicians have to work hard to build the public's confidence that when cars do drive themselves, there will be rules to keep them in line.