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GM Canada gets mandate for driverless car technology

WATCH ABOVE: General Motors Canada will develop a fleet of driverless cars for testing at GM in Michigan next year. As Sean O'Shea reports, one expert says the future of autonomous vehicles is huge.

OSHAWA — In the wind tunnel facility at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Steve Carlisle takes the stage before a packed room filled with General Motors employees, academics and invited guests.

A two-day semi-secret think-tank on technology is beginning as participants are instructed not to take pictures or share what they’re about to discuss on social media.

The man who heads up General Motors Canada is smiling: the company’s president gives an overview of how GM’s Oshawa engineering centre will play a vital role in developing autonomous — or driverless cars.

“Canada has always been on the leading edge of automotive,” Carlisle tells Global News in an exclusive interview after his opening remarks.

By next year, GM Canada will outfit a fleet of 2017 Chevrolet Volt electric vehicles to for an autonomous vehicle testing program at the GM Technical Centre in Warren, Michigan. GM Employees will have access to the vehicles.

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“They will reserve a Volt with an app on a smart phone, it will allow access to the vehicle, take them to a destination, park it, or move on to the next assigned task,” Carlisle said.

Carlisle is fresh from a speech at the Canadian Club in Ottawa Tuesday, where he publicly asked the new federal government to “spend infrastructure dollars with a view of transportation that is multi-modal, connected, electric, and autonomous.”

GM, like every automaker, is in business to sell as many vehicles as it can. But Carlisle openly acknowledges that many consumers don’t make full use of their auto purchases.

“Many cars today are utilized less than 10 per cent,” he said, adding they “take up lots of space.”

Autonomous vehicles could allow more people to use fewer cars — and reduce traffic congestion, according to Jeffrey Miller, associate professor of engineering practice at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“We’re going to be able to move more vehicles in a smaller space,” Miller told Global News, adding driverless vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and drive at more than 100 km/h with only about two metres between vehicles.

Doubters of the emerging technology should brace themselves.

“In the next five years, you are going to see them on the consumer market,” said Miller.

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He makes a bolder prediction about autonomous vehicles, one supported by other engineering experts.

“In the next 15 or 20 years, I predict they will be the majority of cars on the road,” he said.

Just as GM is testing vehicles with a small group — its own employees, Miller says the initial buyers of autonomous vehicles will be niche: individuals who can afford cars equipped with the newest technology and are prepared to pay for it.