Ready or not, Tesla Autopilot means self-driving cars are already on Canadian roads

There are already automatic vehicles on Canadian roads and highways and as the push towards completely driver-less cars accelerates, experts say regulators may have a hard time keeping up with the technology.

It's close to a fully autonomous system and some owners are testing the limits

Tesla Autopilot

8 years ago
Duration 2:41
Aaron Saltzman takes Tesla's new autopilot feature out for a spin on Toronto's highways

The move toward driverless vehicles is accelerating with technology such as Tesla's new Autopilot.

And that means there are already self-driving cars on Canadian highways. 

Some Tesla owners are pushing the limits of the technology and posting some crazy videos online to prove it.   

Earlier this month, Tesla offered an optional $3,000 software update for every Model S built after 2014. The update installs Autopilot, Tesla's automation system, which is just about the closest thing to autonomous driving available to the public right now. 

Autopilot combines adaptive cruise control, automatic lane control, hands-free lane changes, 360-degree collision warning and automatic parking, where the car can look for a parking space and park on command.

How it works

It does this using a combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and previously acquired data that has been uploaded from other Tesla vehicles.

"I drove this model S [from Toronto] to Montreal, pretty much in Autopilot the whole way," said Martin Paquet, regional sales manager for Tesla Canada. 

Our test drive

Paquet took a CBC crew for an extended test drive in a Tesla Model S P85D. It has 700 horsepower, a battery range of about 400 kilometres and a price tag of about $150,000 as tested.

Our test drive took place on a busy highway in Toronto in a mix of traffic conditions.

To engage Autopilot, the driver pulls twice on a lever on the left side of the steering wheel. Pushing the lever once in the opposite direction turns it off.

The driver sets a top speed — in our case, the speed limit of 90 km/h — and sets the distance maintained from the vehicle in front — one to seven car lengths — by toggling on the same lever.

To change lanes, the driver hits the turn signal and, if the vehicle doesn't detect another alongside, it automatically moves over. 

The system feels very smooth when braking and accelerating and when changing lanes. On long curves, the system is designed to stay in the centre of the lane, and the car wiggles a tiny bit as the system continually corrects. 

Every once in a while, a chime sounds reminding the driver to touch the steering wheel. If this doesn't happen, the vehicle is designed to come to a controlled stop. 

Tesla says the system is designed for highway travel. 

"Really intended for on-ramp to off-ramp. Similar to autopilot for a plane. You wouldn't want the pilot to disappear halfway through the flight. You want the pilot to make sure that you take off and land properly," said Paquet

How not to do it

But some Tesla owners have been posting videos online of themselves engaged in some questionable driving activity, like this guy reading a newspaper while driving, or this guy brushing his teeth and reading a book. Tesla has made it clear this is not the way Autopilot is intended to be used. 

Experts say the laws around this level of automation are a grey area.

Ontario will start allowing the testing of fully autonomous vehicles on roads and highways in January.

It says a driver will have to be physically present in the vehicle and remain in the driver's seat at all times. Those testing an autonomous vehicle will have to be licensed and registered and will have to apply to the Ministry of Transportation. A copy of the permit will need to be kept in the vehicle at all times and produced if stopped by a police officer. 

And those participating in the pilot program will be required to have minimum liability coverage of $5 million.

But the province says vehicles with Tesla's current level of automation aren't part of the autonomous vehicle pilot program and are governed by rules currently in place. 

What if something goes wrong?

So what happens if there is an accident involving a vehicle being operated with Tesla's level of automation? There have been some close calls, after all. 

"Really, the only agreement is that things will be worked out in the courts," said Mike Fitzgerald, an insurance industry analyst with Celent.

"A car that's in [Tesla's level of automation] is going towards an object in the road and it either can decide to hit that object or swerve into oncoming traffic. If it has control at that time, kind of what everybody's thinking is, it's the auto manufacturer that's going to be liable for that."

Manufacturer's responsibility?

Fitzgerald said that just this month, Volvo stated it would assume all liability in an accident that is proven to be the fault of a Volvo vehicle.

"So it's a really key development when everyone has been wondering about … what position they're going to take.  So kind of the gauntlet is down. We haven't heard any other manufacturers come out yet, but Volvo is clearly leading the way."

Ultimately, Fitzgerald said, automation will lead to a significant reduction in accidents, which will also lead to a corresponding reduction in driver insurance premiums. 

But in the interim, he said, the technology is moving faster than regulators can respond. 

"I know that there are already some working groups in Canada and one province [Ontario] that's looking at this." Fitzgerald said.

"There's an awful lot of co-operation and dialogue [required] on a level we haven't seen before and at a speed we haven't seen before."


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.