Edmonton could become test centre for driverless vehicles

The City of Edmonton is looking at setting up a test track at the University of Alberta to try out driverless vehicles.

'It's a billion-dollar opportunity,' says head of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation

Automated shuttle buses have been tested on the roads in Helsinki, Finland. (Easymile)

The City of Edmonton is looking at setting up a test track at the University of Alberta to try out so-called autonomous or driverless vehicles.

The pilot project would involve a track on the south campus, that would test 'light-duty shuttles,' which are small 12-passenger buses.

"It's a billion-dollar opportunity, if we choose to play in this sector," said Brad Ferguson, president & CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. 

The opportunity is similar to how hydrocarbons provided a foundation for the oil industry in Alberta, added Ferguson.

The pilot project would grow local expertise and show the industry that Edmonton is serious about taking the lead on this, he said.

"We have the availability of land ... and the extreme aspects of four seasons," Ferguson told council's urban planning committee Wednesday.

"We're certainly not the first to this discussion, but we're certainly not too late to seize the opportunity," he told councillors.

He did admit however that it could take up to 20 years before the vehicles would be zooming around Edmonton's streets.

City investment required

The city may be asked to purchase one or two light-duty shuttles for testing, and perhaps pay some of the cost of the test track itself, said Erin Toop, a senior engineer with the city.

The details of city involvement and any costs will be part of a long-term plan to be presented to the committee on June 7.

"There's an opportunity right now in Alberta to be seen as an innovator," Dan Duckering, with the Alberta Motor Transportation Association, told the committee.

The association has recently invested in 20 acres near the Edmonton International Airport to create an international driver training centre.

Testing of self-driving trucks could be part of that, Duckering said.

It's really about enhanced safety systems.- Dan Duckering, Alta. Motor Transport Assn.

"We don't see driverless trucks driving around," he said. "It's really about enhanced safety systems."

Fatigue and various distractions can cause human error while driving, whereas a safety system can over-ride that, he said.

Cameras and sensors interact with the vehicle so it stays in the correct lane, senses other vehicles, detects the edges of the road, and can make adjustments based on road conditions, Duckering added.

The technology hasn't been tested in extreme weather and that's what Edmonton can capitalize on, he said.

This is not about replacing people with technology, but rather about creating new jobs in this growing field, Duckering said.
"The big thing is for Edmonton to set itself apart for what it is, a progressive, innovative city looking for new technology," said Dan Duckering. (Lydia Neufeld/CBC)

The best example is an airline pilot who uses technology to take-off, land and fly a plane, but he is still physically there, he added.

"There's a lot of technologies that, initially, it's hard to understand how we'll benefit from it, and over time we go 'How did we ever do without it'," Duckering said.

Finland and the state of Nevada are two locations already piloting this technology.

The intention is for Edmonton to lead the policies around it, and ideally have the companies that want to invest in this setting up shop here, said Coun. Andrew Knack.

"They need to test in winter climates. If an automated vehicle is going to work in Edmonton it's going to work anywhere else in the world," he said.

"It's not just going to impact transportation, it's going to impact land use and infrastructure requirements," Knack said.

"I want Edmonton to be the world leader in this conversation."