Ontario allows public road testing of autonomous cars — without someone behind the wheel

Ontario's Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek visited the Sedra Student Design Centre at the University of Waterloo Tuesday afternoon to announce changes coming to the automated vehicle industry.

Manufacturers and researchers can now test automated vehicles without a driver on public roads

The University of Waterloo's "autonomoose" logged 100 kilometres on public roads in August 2018. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

Ontario could soon see autonomous vehicles driving on roadways — without the help of someone behind the wheel.

Ontario's Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek announced changes to the automated vehicle industry on Tuesday, at the Sedra Student Design Centre at the University of Waterloo. 

The changes allow some automated vehicles on public roads with just a passenger on board or a remote operator monitoring the vehicle's operations. Previously, the province required someone sitting in the driver's seat.

The new rules expand the 10-year automated vehicle pilot program, which the province launched in 2016, he said.

"We've done autonomous driving without a human in the driver's seat on a test track, and now, we're able to take that forward to the next step of progress with public road testing," said Ross McKenzie, the managing director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR).

WatCAR's automated vehicle, nicknamed the "autonomoose," logged 100 kilometres on public roads in August 2018, when it was tested with a human operator in the driver's seat. 

Yurek also said the program has changed to allow researchers to test "platooning" technology, which allows large trucks to travel together using support systems and vehicle-to-vehicle communications. 

Level 3 vehicles not yet available in Canada

The province will also allow cars with higher levels of automation to be driven on Ontario roads once they're eligible to be purchased in Canada. 

The cars have to be equipped with Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International Level 3 technology. 

Once they're made available for purchase by the federal government, they're no longer restricted to registered participants of the automated vehicle pilot program in Ontario. 

McKenzie said these cars, which have been released by companies like Audi, have been made available for purchase in selected European countries. 

"At a full level three, you don't need your hands on the wheel and a foot on a pedal, so it uses a lot of technologies and it's anchored by adaptive cruise control ... and lane keeping technology," McKenzie said. 

Yurek said the federal government has yet to approve Level 3 vehicles and allow them to be purchased in Canada. 

"Obviously, manufacturers are reaching a point where they will be able to bring them online, so we're just waiting for the federal government to move forward on that," he said. "What we've done ... is remove the barriers that now put us on a leveled playing field with other jurisdiction doing the same research." 

The changes came into effect on Jan. 1.