We’re in a world full of innovations that are shifting our technological landscape from easy to automatic: from automated banking apps to cars that can park themselves—but are we ready for our vehicles to drive for us, too? The potential is becoming a reality, one that carries a new range of possibility for Alberta’s industries.
“Like many sectors, there is a huge future for autonomous machinery in agriculture,” says Renn Breitkreuz, chair of Alberta Canola, an organization that is governed by a board of directors consisting of 12 farmers from across the province. Breitkreuz is also a farmer near Onoway, AB.
“Currently,” he continues, “many agricultural field machines use auto-steer technology, which allows the machine to use GPS signals to drive itself down the field. The operator is in the seat and monitors the machine, oversees the task it is doing, and assists with maneuvering around obstacles. The next generation, currently at the early prototype stage, is fully autonomous machines that don’t require a human operator.”
Breitkreuz continues, “Current auto-steer technology assists with reducing operator fatigue and reduces overlap, allowing for more precise and efficient application of crop nutrition and protection products. The reduction in overlap reduces the environmental load of crop inputs and saves farmers money. The next generation of autonomous machinery will assist in mitigating the labour shortage that affects many industries in Canada. Furthermore, as sensor technology continues to improve, there are anticipated opportunities for autonomous machines that can self-maneuver around a field, and when they sense a weed, they can apply a targeted stream of herbicide. Alternatively, these machines may be able to mechanically cultivate a weed when it is sensed.”
Canola is more than a successful industry. Breitkreuz points out, “Canola has surpassed wheat to be the most important crop for western Canadian farmers. There are 43,000 canola farmers in Canada, and the entire canola industry is worth $26.7 billion per year to the national economy, providing about 250,000 jobs.”
A big part of canola’s success boils down to its ability to innovate.
“The early commercialization and adoption of new agricultural techniques is our competitive advantage,” he explains. “Relative to our global competitors, we have a short growing season and are a long distance from markets. Our grain products need to travel on a long train trip through the Rocky Mountains in the heart of winter to get to export position. Despite these commercial difficulties, our ability to innovate allows us to achieve a productivity per farmer that is second to none. Consequently, Canadian farms have been able to survive and thrive in the crucible of the global marketplace, even against lower-cost producers. Furthermore, our reputation for producing high quality and affordable food serves us well in the global marketplace.”
Innovative machinery may have enabled farming industries like canola to take on a new competitive edge, but the possibilities for driverless technology don’t stop there. As Stephanie McCabe, branch manager, corporate strategy, City of Edmonton explains, “Automated vehicles will almost certainly be part of the future of transportation.”
“Simple models based on Edmonton vehicle statistics suggest that, if adoption of automated vehicles is very rapid, fully automated vehicles could make up a large part of the vehicles on the road within 15 to 20 years. If the pace is slower, it could take 30+ years for fully automated vehicles to make up the majority of cars on Edmonton roads,” McCabe adds. However, regardless of the time frame, the future of driverless transportation has already begun to take hold in Edmonton.
McCabe points out, “Some automated vehicle technologies, such as adaptive cruise control, are already available on the market. Other more advanced technologies are still being developed. Vehicles that can drive themselves in any situation with no human intervention may be decades away, but they could emerge sooner, and less advanced but still powerful technologies will emerge more quickly.
“The City is currently partnering with the University of Alberta, who is testing connected vehicle technology in a few locations across Edmonton. Connected vehicles use wireless mobile devices to exchange information in real time with roadside equipment like traffic lights or message signs, and with other vehicles. Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) use new and emerging technology to reduce congestion, save money, improve safety, and reduce environmental impacts in all areas of transportation.”
“In many aspects, today’s vehicles are already connected devices,” agrees Dr. Tony Qiu, associate professor and director of The Centre for Smart Transportation at the University of Alberta. “In the near future, vehicles will interact or ‘talk’ directly with each other and the road infrastructure (such as traffic lights). This interaction will allow road users and traffic management agencies to share information and use it to coordinate their actions and responses. This cooperative element—enabled by digital connectivity among vehicles and among vehicles and infrastructure—is expected to significantly improve road safety, travel efficiency, and the driving experience.”
“Our flagship project in the field of connected vehicles is *ACTIVE-AURORA (ACTIVE: Alberta Cooperative Transportation Infrastructure and Vehicular Environment; AURORA: Automotive test bed for Reconfigurable and Optimized Radio Access), Canada’s first connected vehicle test bed network,” Qiu explains. “ACTIVE-AURORA is a unique collaboration among Transport Canada, Alberta Transportation, City of Edmonton, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, and several industry partners.”
Currently, ACTIVE has real-world test beds in various locations in Edmonton, including sections of Anthony Henday Drive, Whitemud Drive, and 23rd Ave. “The test bed network affords a unique opportunity to address capacity constraints and bottlenecks on the transportation network to improve Alberta’s and Canada’s international trade flows; to advance knowledge and understanding of multimodal transportation systems; and to enhance the capacity, safety, security, efficiency and environmental performance of provincial and national transportation networks,” Qiu explains.
“Connected vehicle (CV) technology is one of the latest and most exciting developments within intelligent transportation systems (ITS),” adds Qiu. “CV technology enables vehicles to communicate critical, potentially life-saving, real-time information (e.g. location, speed, inclement weather, adverse road conditions) with other vehicles and surrounding infrastructure via wireless networks. Because of its ability to receive, predict, and communicate real-time road and weather condition information, CV technology has the potential to greatly improve operational safety and efficiency on Alberta’s and Canada’s transportation networks, impacting not only the agencies that manage these networks, but also the travellers who use them.
“Connected and automated vehicle technologies will also have a transformative impact on ride sharing and car sharing operations, in light of the rise of companies such as Uber and Lyft. Cooperative transportation systems utilizing innovative technologies and strategies will enable Canada to remain globally competitive in technology development and trade. With ACTIVE-AURORA and the collaboration of several different organizations, Edmonton is at the forefront, playing an active role in the evolution of transportation.”
“All of these technologies could impact the way people move in Edmonton,” McCabe observes—and that could also mean changing the cityscape.
“Automated vehicles may make our roads safer by drastically reducing the number of accidents caused by human error,” suggests McCabe, thereby “reducing the number of accidents, leading to less traffic congestion and, in turn, improving fuel efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. Automated vehicles may also increase vehicle capacity on some roads, reducing parking requirements. This would support more compact, efficient development because less space would be needed for parking lots and roads could be narrower. Automated buses could significantly improve the frequency and capacity of transit. This could lead to increased mode share for transit and reduce private vehicle use.”
McCabe points to the City’s Smart Transportation Action Plan. “Right now, the City is planning ahead so that we are prepared when full automation arrives. We are building an interconnected, multi-modal transportation system where citizens can walk, bike, drive, and ride transit efficiently and conveniently. Automated vehicle technology is one tool that can help us get there.”
In other words, the future of transportation has already begun, and driverless technology may be a lot closer to Edmonton’s horizon than you think.