Win­nipeg will be a good test for driver­less cars

Winnipeg Free Press - - THINK TANK - CARL DEGURSE

THUMBS up to whichever brainiac in the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment de­cided Man­i­toba should al­low test­ing of driver­less ve­hi­cles.

The Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment an­nounced in its throne speech on Nov. 20 that it’s work­ing on leg­is­la­tion to let fully au­to­mated ve­hi­cles be road-tested in Man­i­toba.

These ve­hi­cles are al­ready driv­ing in plenty of places where the pave­ment is smooth and the weather is fine, but test re­sults from balmy places such as Cal­i­for­nia are as un­wel­come here as their ro­maine let­tuce.

Ro­bot ve­hi­cles might seem like a fu­tur­is­tic fan­tasy, but op­ti­mistic pre­dic­tions within the in­dus­try are that pri­vate driver­less cars will be avail­able for sale to the pub­lic in two to five years. On Wed­nes­day, a com­pany called Waymo launched a com­mer­cial ro­bot ride-hail­ing ser­vice in Ari­zona, where the car drives it­self while a Waymo en­gi­neer sits be­hind the wheel in case any­thing goes wrong.

Driv­ing in Win­nipeg is dif­fer­ent from driv­ing in Ari­zona, though. Here are four ways in which Win­nipeg might prove to be a tough ride for ro­bot ve­hi­cles:


Driver­less cars have sen­sors that are sup­posed to iden­tify ob­sta­cles, but driver­less cars can get con­fused when snow falls thickly, some­times reg­is­ter­ing it as an ob­sta­cle.

Also, their nav­i­ga­tion de­pends, at least partly, on their cam­eras track­ing lines on the pave­ment. Good luck with that. Win­nipeg­gers are used to driv­ing for months with­out see­ing the lines buried be­neath snow and ice.

Cur­rently, driver­less cars are be­ing tested in snowy places in­clud­ing On­tario, and com­pa­nies such as Ford have de­vel­oped more in­tri­cate nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, so they may even­tu­ally ad­just to heavy snow­fall.

But for now, win­ter storms in Win­nipeg would be bet­ter at­tempted by driver­less snow­mo­biles, if there is such a thing.


Pave­ment in this city is so rough, Win­nipeg­gers who drive else­where are of­ten sur­prised to learn long stretches of road can be smooth.

Early mod­els of driver­less cars can’t eas­ily sense pot­holes be­cause the holes are be­low the sur­face. Sen­sors that scan the roads’ sur­faces can’t al­ways dis­tin­guish be­tween pot­holes, pud­dles, icy patches and spills of oil.

Such ve­hi­cles won’t be much good here if they can’t de­tect pot­holes. They will need to act like Win­nipeg driv­ers, who ei­ther learn to dodge pot­holes or pay to re­peat­edly re­pair their ve­hi­cles’ sus­pen­sion sys­tems.

And road sur­faces only get worse in win­ter. Ice abounds at in­ter­sec­tions, where spin­ning tires pol­ish the sur­face to slick­ness. And ruts are carved into snow by tire tracks and then frozen solid, par­tic­u­larly on side streets and al­leys.

Win­nipeg has two un­of­fi­cial sea­sons: pot­hole sea­son and icy-road sea­son. Driver­less cars should be tested in both.


Driver­less cars func­tion best when other driv­ers act pre­dictably and ad­here to the rules of the road. That means they won’t like driv­ing in Win­nipeg.

I don’t have em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence, but my ob­ser­va­tion af­ter driv­ing in around 12 North Amer­i­can cities is that Win­nipeg has a dis­pro­por­tion­ately large num­ber of bad driv­ers. These road rogues seem to for­get the rules of safe driv­ing as soon as they pass their driver’s tests. They tail­gate, change lanes with­out sig­nalling, speed up for yel­low traf­fic lights, roll through stop signs and honk their ir­ri­ta­tion at other driv­ers.

As an ex­am­ple of Win­nipeg quirks that might baf­fle a ro­bot, imag­ine a four-way stop. The rules about who goes first are of­ten ig­nored in Win­nipeg. In­stead, driv­ers who ar­rive at the in­ter­sec­tion si­mul­ta­ne­ously eye­ball each other un­til one lifts a hand off the steer­ing wheel and, by flick­ing their fin­gers up­wards, or­ders the other driver to pro­ceed. Can a driver­less car in­ter­pret a flick of fin­gers? Driver­less cars are pro­grammed to act pre­dictably. Win­nipeg driv­ers, not so much.


Right now, driver­less tech­nol­ogy is more ex­pen­sive than the ve­hi­cle it’s at­tached to.

The cost will be a big fac­tor in Win­nipeg, where fru­gal­ity is con­sid­ered an at­tribute, where Dol­lara­mas dot the re­tail land­scape, where pay­ing full price for any­thing in­di­cates you’re not from here.

Some ex­perts say driver­less cars will cost as much as $100,000, de­pend­ing on how much tech­nol­ogy is added. Oth­ers say that cost will come down sub­stan­tially, and might even­tu­ally add as lit­tle as $10,000 to the ve­hi­cle’s sticker price.

The hefty cost is a rea­son why it’s wel­come news that Man­i­toba will al­low lo­cal test­ing of driver­less cars rather than rely on tests from other places.

The tests should in­clude the worst this area has to of­fer. Drive the Trans-Canada Highway to Bran­don dur­ing a sleet storm with strong winds. At­tempt to ne­go­ti­ate bewil­der­ing Win­nipeg in­ter­sec­tions such as St. Mary’s Road at Tache Av­enue, and then Con­fu­sion Cor­ner. Find a park­ing spot down­town dur­ing a Jets home game.

Re­sults of such tests should be made pub­lic. We want to know whether driver­less cars are up to the chal­lenges of driv­ing in Win­nipeg. Only then will we con­sider let­ting a ro­bot take the wheel.


An em­ployee of Fry’s su­per­mar­ket in Scotts­dale, Ariz., puts gro­ceries into a driver­less car dur­ing a pi­lot pro­gram for de­liv­er­ies.

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