Eric Novak. The Star. November 13, 2021.
Regular users of public transit have become accustomed to hearing updates from an automated message that robotically calls out the name of the next stop. But the day is coming when even the driving will be automated and beginning soon, residents of Whitby will be able to get a real-life glimpse of what that future may look like.
That’s because Durham Regional Transit is about to launch the Whitby Autonomous Vehicle Electric shuttle on a new transit route as part of a multi-partner initiative to learn about how automated technologies can contribute to safer, more sustainable and connected transit and traffic operations.
Members of the media and dignitaries were recently invited to participate in a demonstration of WAVE prior to its official launch as a scheduled service.
The shuttle itself, which goes by the name Olli, is a fully autonomous, driverless, 3D-printed electric vehicle. It’s built by U.S. based Local Motors and is powered by a 100-kW motor connected to an 18.5 kWh battery. It can travel as fast as 40 km/h but will be limited to 20 km/h during the pilot and has an operating range of up to 56 kilometres on a single charge.
The WAVE pilot project will utilize two Olli units since the scheduled service will run for periods longer than can be managed on a single charge. Units can be fully charged using a standard 220V charger in about 90 minutes.
The six-kilometre long Route 300 will run in a loop beginning and ending at the Whitby GO Station. Olli will travel along roads by the town’s waterfront, which usually have lower traffic volumes. It will operate during off-peak hours on weekdays and weekends to avoid any potential conflicts with rush hour commuters. Durham Transit is not charging passengers to ride the WAVE shuttle during the pilot, but they would need to pay if they were connecting to any local or regional transit service.
At present, there are more than 20 deployments of Olli around the world, however this will be the first time in Canada that an autonomous shuttle and smart infrastructure will be fully integrated into an existing transit service.
Ontario is well-positioned to take on a leading role in the world of autonomous vehicle technology. The province has long been known as a hub of automotive manufacturing and supply, but in recent years has also grown into the second-largest information and communication technology (ICT) cluster in North America, with more than 20,000 ICT firms.
Spearheading the drive for Ontario to be a leading autonomous vehicle jurisdiction is the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network, a program operated under the provincial government’s Ontario Centre’s of Excellence initiative. Funding for the WAVE pilot program is primarily provided by AVIN, with additional funding and support coming from as many as 12 other public and private sector partners.
Despite the ability for a program like this to integrate into a public transit network, it will be several years yet before autonomous vehicle technology can be implemented on a larger scale. The WAVE shuttle pilot project provides an opportunity for insight into what physical and digital infrastructure will be necessary to prepare for autonomous vehicles on public roads in Canada over the coming years ahead.
Another area of autonomous vehicle technology that is still a work in progress deals with operating in difficult or inclement weather. Sensors mounted on the outside of a self-driven vehicle could be blocked by snow and slush. WAVE will operate during winter as part of the pilot, but service will halt when visibility due to winter conditions makes operating unsafe. Learning where that safety threshold exists, as well as whether other technologies available can increase the threshold, will be a valuable takeaway achieved during the pilot projects overall run.
WAVE will be aided by more than 50 pieces of smart infrastructure — known as Smart Torch — along the route that eliminates blind spots experienced by any vehicle and provides real-time audio and visual alerts to other road users about the shuttle’s operation. The torches and associated technology were developed by SmartCone, an Ottawa-based technology company.
While the thought of driverless cars and transit vehicles on Ontario’s roads may be years off on a grand scale, anyone wanting to get a glimpse of the future need only head over to Whitby’s waterfront, where a glimpse of a safer, more sustainable transportation option is just a WAVE ride away.