No driver? No problem, says Ottawa autonomous vehicle advocate

The province is easing restrictions on driverless vehicles — and the head of the Ottawa-based Canadian Autonomous Vehicle Centre of Excellen calls it a move in the right direction.

Barrie Kirk welcomes driverless car testing on public roads

A driverless car rolls through a street in Kanata during a test in 2017. The Ontario government has announced it will be easing restrictions on driverless vehicles, allowing some models to appear on public roads. (Florence Ngue-No/Radio-Canada)

On a wintry week when just about everything that could go wrong on local roadwaysdid go wrong, news the province would be easing restrictions on driverless vehicles might have seemed premature.

Yet the head of Ottawa-based Canadian Autonomous Vehicle Centre of Excellence, or CAVCOE, calls it a move in the right direction.

"The whole deployment of driverless cars will be gradual, both from a technology perspective and from regulations," said Barrie Kirk.

"It's a very good [first] step, which I support, but it's not going to be the ultimate in terms of driverless cars."

On Tuesday, Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek announced changes to the automated vehicle industry — changes that would allow some automated vehicles on public roads, either with a passenger inside or with a remote operator monitoring the car from a trailing vehicle. 

The new rules expand Ontario's 10-year automated vehicle pilot program, launched in 2016, said Yurek.

Yurek also said the program will also now allow researchers to test "platooning" technology, in which driverless trucks travel together using support systems and vehicle-to-vehicle communications. 

Barrie Kirk runs the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence. He says autonomous vehicles will be a common sight by 2020. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Level 3 vehicles not yet available in Canada

Kirk told CBC Radio's All In A Day that 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.

Kirk said there are different levels of self-driving vehicles, from zero to five, and a level three car — one that can drive itself for part of its journey, not the entire trip — will be allowed under the new rules.

The decision to approve such vehicles for sale is the responsibility of Transport Canada. Once they are, they'll no longer be restricted to registered participants of Ontario's automated vehicle pilot program.

"They will be allowed to be used by members of the public right away, without any special permit," said Kirk.

"And in fact, the new Audi A8 is being introduced that meets that kind of criteria, level three, as a stepping stone to full autonomy."

While Yurek publicly announced the changes last week, they actually came into effect Jan. 1.