STRATFORD, Ontario (Reuters) - A Canadian town known for its annual theater festival is emerging as a hub of “snowtonomous” research, as automakers face demands to produce self-driving cars that can perform in snow and sleet.
But testing driverless cars in cold climates brings added challenges to an industry grappling with the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle.
On Sunday, an Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] self-driving sport utility vehicle hit and killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona. Details of the crash are still unknown.
The Canadian province of Ontario, which allows autonomous vehicles on roads only if there is a human driver behind the wheel, said it is closely following the Arizona investigation and would take “action if warranted.” Canada’s largest city, Toronto, is one of three places where Uber tests driverless technology - the other cities are Phoenix, Arizona, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Automakers, ride services companies and others are investing in self-driving technology said to reduce accidents, and the costs of a driver, with robo-taxis expected to hit the road as early as this year.
A wider rollout, however, is expected to take years, if not decades, as companies work to prove autonomous vehicles can run not just in balmy U.S. states, where they are mostly tested, but in colder areas like Ontario and Michigan where snow and sleet can render cameras and sensors ineffective.
Ross McKenzie, managing director of the Waterloo Center of Automotive Research, recalled how a vehicle’s lidar, which uses laser light to help autonomous cars “see” nearby objects, once mistook an ice patch for a pothole.
McKenzie’s research team at the University of Waterloo responded by tweaking the sedan’s software so it would factor in the time of year and weather when driving in the snow and ice, conditions that autonomous vehicles will have to navigate to be commercially viable.
The car needs to consider “we have winter driving conditions because I’m in Canada, it’s November and it’s 15 below,” McKenzie said by phone.
Ontario, which has lost automaking jobs to lower-cost Mexico in recent years, is counting on the lure of its snowy winters and the strength of its automotive and software engineering sectors to establish a “Silicon North.” Since 2016, Ontario has attracted about C$1 billion ($765 million) in private-sector investment for autonomous and connected cars.
In Stratford, where the theater festival is an important employer of its 31,000 residents, the city-wide wireless network and weather are helping to attract companies researching connected driving technologies. Ubiquitous Wi-Fi gives companies the option to test vehicle-to-vehicle communication over a 4G band, McKenzie said.