Driverless vehicles could be tested on downtown Calgary streets at night, say city staff

City engineers and local businesses have asked to test autonomous vehicles — ones that run without a human driver — on roads that are usually empty in the wee hours of the morning.

'Perhaps we're a little bit behind the times,' transportation strategist Chris Blaschuk says

This prototype is the first vehicle built from scratch for the purpose of self-driving, Google says. Self-driving vehicles are being tested around the world, including in Alberta. (Tony Avelar/Associated Press)

Driverless cars may soon be rolling through Calgary's downtown streets.

City transportation strategists and local businesses have asked to test autonomous vehicles — ones that run without a human driver — on roads that are usually empty in the wee hours of the morning.

"Perhaps we're a little bit behind the times," City of Calgary transportation strategy manager Chris Blaschuk told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"There are already lots of places down in the States where you can test self-driving cars. The fact is, we are not that far away from these being readily available to members of the public."

In Alberta, autonomous vehicles will be allowed to do trial runs but plans so far are for tests on specially built tracks — removed from public roads — near the Edmonton International Airport and the University of Alberta's south campus.

In Calgary, city specialists want regulations to explicitly allow testing on public streets.

Nothing in provincial legislation prohibits putting fully automated vehicles on the road, or ones that can be taken over by a human driver.

'Definitely moving fast'

But the vehicles would be indirectly barred because legislation is written assuming a human driver is in control of the vehicle, for example, by prohibiting talking on the phone while operating a vehicle.

"The technology's definitely moving fast and we realize that," Blaschuk said. "Really, in Canada, Ontario's the only … province that has a framework in place. So Alberta's not alone."

Calgary is home to experts in the types of technologies that autonomous vehicles need to run, specifically geomatics — using mapping information to guide the driverless vehicle.

Lina Kattan, an engineering professor at the University of Calgary, says her colleagues' expertise is called on by self-driving car testers in the United States.

Testing on Calgary roads with local geomatics technology could look at how a self-driving vehicle interacts with a virtual pedestrian, how the autonomous vehicle does at driving in a fleet of trucks, and what it's like for a human passenger riding along, she said.

"Having these systems in our backyard and testing them, that's going to be ... great," said Kattan, who wrote a letter in support of the proposed rule changes.

Province 'open to all of this'

When asked by CBC News, a spokesperson for the provincial department wouldn't say whether on-road testing would be allowed in Calgary as proposed.

"We're open to all of this," Alberta Transportation communications adviser Wayne Wood said Thursday. "We want to see what's out there and what people are talking about."

The department is working on new regulations for both testing the vehicles and for when automated vehicles are driving regularly on Alberta roads — "Jetsons kind of stuff," he said.

So far, the province is planning to streamline permit requests from municipalities and interested companies. This may include defining how and under what conditions a company could book use of a public street overnight, for example.

"That then allows us to evaluate that technology, with an eye to making sure everything is safe and it's appropriate for our changing weather conditions in Alberta," Wood said.

An automated vehicle drives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in September. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The "simplest way" to avoid problems during tests would be to control the testing environment and have a passenger in the vehicle who could manually override the car, Kattan said.

The report goes before city council on Monday, with a recommendation that council formally ask the province for new rules.

Full details of the province's plans are expected by next summer.

With files from Caroline Wagner and the Calgary Eyeopener