Winnipeg will be a good test for driverless cars
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:
WOES OF WINTER
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.
PITFALLS OF POTHOLES
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.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
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.
IS THAT YOUR BEST PRICE?
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.