Driverless cars in Canada: What they are and how they work

Tesla's Model S has a feature that allows it to drive on autopilot.
Tesla's Model S has a feature that allows it to drive on autopilot. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

Driverless cars might sound like something out of science fiction, but it’s closer to becoming a reality.

While the flying cars of the Jetsons are still a way off, cars that can operate with minimal human activity are here. Currently, there are no truly driverless cars allowed in Canada, only those that are semi-autonomous. In January, Ontario became the first province to test fully automated vehicles, part of a 10-year pilot program.

READ MORE: Ontario monitoring U.S. investigation into fatal collision involving driverless car

But Tesla, BMW, Audi and Mercedes Benz are already producing semi-autonomous cars, with all vehicles marketing them as an assisted driving feature.

These sorts of “smart” cars have been in development for years. It more or less started with the self-park features but quickly advanced.

The advancement in technology has been so rapid that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) believes that by the year 2040, 75 per cent of the cars on the road will be automated in one form or another.

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Google’s self-driving car is on the roads in California preparing for the day humans can get into a steering-wheel and brake-free vehicle. But it’s had its hiccups including getting tickets and being involved in an accident.

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For now, drivers only have access to the semi-autonomous features.

How it works

In order to get an accurate picture of the road around you, these semi-autonomous cars are equipped with cameras and sensors. In the case of Tesla, the car has both a forward radar and camera, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors that sense five metres around the car in every direction and a high-precision digitally controlled assist braking system.

The radar sensors detect the positions of nearby vehicles. Other sensors read the road: they can detect the edge of a roadway, curbs, lane markings and more. And all that information is put into a computer within your car that analyzes it all and controls speed, steering and braking.

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READ MORE: Google’s driverless car system counts as a human driver, US says

But while you’re driving, your hands are meant to be on the wheel. If you try to take them off the wheel, it will glow red and the car will slow down.

Following the death of Joshua Brown in Florida in May when his Tesla Model S crashed into the back of a truck, there have been some questions about the safety of semi-autonomous cars. There has been some discussion as to whether or not Brown was watching a movie on a portable DVD player. The investigation is ongoing.

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Giving up control while behind the wheel may be a welcome idea for some. But for the time being, these semi-autonomous vehicles still require some level of human control.

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“Tesla Autopilot functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear,” Tesla wrote on its blog heralding the introduction of its Autopilot. But it added, “The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car.”

And while the idea of sitting behind the wheel and catching up on paperwork, email or texting might be appealing, it’s important to note that it’s still illegal to do anything of the sort.

We may be a ways off from flying cars, but at the moment, it looks like driverless cars are on their way.

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