Ottawa

'Mini-city' for self-driving vehicles launches in Greenbelt

A former research farm in Ottawa's Greenbelt is being turned into a hub for testing the algorithms, sensors and other technology that will allow vehicles to drive themselves.

Includes 16 km of paved roads, one-way streets, pedestrian crossings and bike lanes

British shuttle company Aurrigo decided to set up shop in Ottawa last year, drawn by the local expertise in autonomous vehicles, and the possibility of testing its shuttles on a new track in many types of weather. (Kate Porter/CBC)

A former research farm in Ottawa's Greenbelt is being turned into a hub for testing the algorithms, sensors and other technology that will allow vehicles to drive themselves.

Invest Ottawa, the city's economic development agency, launched the Ottawa L5 test track on Friday.

The track will provide a closed, controlled area for companies to use. The "L5" stands for "level 5," the highest level of vehicle intelligence and automation — a goal those companies aspire to hit.

"We need an area to test our advanced software, advanced technologies, new sensors in the vehicle,"  said Grant Courville, vice-president at QNX, a subsidiary of Blackberry and already the anchor for Ottawa's autonomous vehicle industry in Kanata.

"So this facility here at Ottawa L5 is perfect."

British company Aurrigo set up shop in Ottawa a year ago for reasons that include Canada's enthusiasm for the technology, the technical expertise available in the city, and its weather.

"To make these vehicles global, they need to be tested in every environment known to man," said Chris Keefe, Aurrigo's vice-president of autonomous programs.

"And Ottawa offers a special, unique look at weather from hot to cold, so it's really working out in terms of a one-stop shop when it comes to vehicles."

David Van Geyn, software developer with QNX, took CBC News on a test drive around Ottawa's new track for autonomous vehicles. 1:32

Bike lanes, pedestrian crossings

Invest Ottawa already has intersections set up at a testing area in Kanata North, but the new 16 kilometres of paved roads in the Greenbelt will give companies a private area to further test their technologies, away from the traffic of public streets.

The City of Ottawa helped set up the special street grid, which includes one-way roads, pedestrian crossings, and bike lanes so as to better mimic real-world situations.

"It's essentially a mini-city where we can test ... some of our more advanced software in that controlled environment," Courville said.

"It's great to have it right in our backyard."

The Ottawa L5 test area could eventually have a space for high-speed testing, but the main focus now is on this grid, set up to mimic many types of common traffic situations. (Invest Ottawa)

In the future, the large property will also include a high-speed track and an area to test drones.

Provincial MPPs also attended Friday's test track launch, as the Ontario Centres of Excellence contributed $5 million in May 2018 to the project through its Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network.

The Progressive Conservative government then gave the network a further boost recently so it could focus on winter technologies.

The emphasis on these technology and automotive jobs contrasts with the criticism the PCs have faced for cutting funding to Ottawa Tourism, another key industry in the city.

"We believe that this is a great investment in the auto sector and jobs of the future," said Todd Smith, Ontario's minister of economic development, job creation and trade. 

"Certainly we believe in tourism, and we're funding tourism and all kinds of different ways. We're just making sure that we're far more strategic about how we're investing the people's money." 

"What we're seeing today is a great deal of self-sufficiency and self-reliance," added Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod.

When will driverless cars be ready?

Despite the optimism on display Friday, QNX's Courville said it may still be another 20 years before driverless cars are fully road-ready and safe for the general population on public streets.

But Aurrigo, which focuses on developing shuttles used in places like theme parks and airports, sees widespread use sooner rather than later.

"Autonomy in the next few years is not going to be that unique, strange thing," said Keefe.

The Greenbelt property across from the Nepean Sportsplex will not just become a focal point for vehicle technology, however. 

The Ottawa Film Office and TriBro Studios are about to begin construction on sound stages for television production and animation nearby, while a testbed for smart farming is also in the works.

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