Two new research studies point to a smoother road ahead for widespread acceptance of self-driving cars.

In a recent U.S. study, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV) provided year-end road test results for autonomous cars made by 11 manufacturers. The numbers suggest that, overall, the cars are getting safer over time as their machine learning systems identify more data patterns on which to base future automated driving decisions.

The most striking data came from Google’s autonomous Waymo vehicle. It reported an average of two disengagements (i.e., situations requiring human driver intervention) per 10,000 miles during 2016. That’s a 75 per cent drop from the eight disengagements it reported in 2015.

Nissan’s autonomous vehicle also posted a big improvement. Its model had 28 disengagements per 10,000 miles last year, down sharply from 68 in 2015.

Google’s Waymo self-driving car posted the biggest improvement in safety among 11 models in U.S. road testing last year.

The CDMV didn’t compile an overall average disengagement figure or percentage rate for all 11 vehicles combined. Every vehicle that had been tested for at least two years, however, recorded a drop in disengagements between 2015 and 2016.

Findings like that could boost comfort levels with the technology among Canadian consumers, who already appear to be gaining confidence in the safety of the vehicles.

In a recent survey of 1,000 Canadians, 26 per cent said they “can’t wait” until autonomous vehicles are a reality on the road, up slightly from 25 per cent a year earlier. Fifty-six per cent said it depends on how well the technology works, up from 52 per cent the previous year. Only 18 per cent said they love driving too much to ever get a driverless car, down from 23 per cent in the year-ago poll.

“I believe (acceptance) is only going to get higher,” said Andrew Lo, COO at Kanetix.ca, the Canadian online insurance marketplace that commissioned the survey. “People are less scared about this technology than last year. Awareness of what the technology is all about and how it’s going to work will make it even more” acceptable to Canadians, he said.

Personal experience

The opportunity to personally experience the vehicles would bolster consumer confidence in the technology, said Barrie Kirk, executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence (CAVCOE).

“Most people are still feeling uncomfortable (with the technology). But what’s missing is the fact they’ve never been in a self-driving car,” Kirk said.

Kanetix.ca COO Andrew Lo.

Lo noted that carmakers tried to remedy that at January’s annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

“Previously at CES, they only had presentations about autonomous cars. But this year at CES they actually had the vehicles driving and doing live demos. So we’ve seen huge progress with putting this technology on the ground.”

A CAVCOE research report authored last year with the Conference Board of Canada estimates that full deployment of autonomous vehicle technology could prevent 80 per cent of all traffic collisions, injuries and fatalities.

Kirk acknowledges self-driving vehicle technology “will never be perfect. As an engineer, I know that all software fails eventually or periodically.”

Still, he said tests prove automated smart systems are ultimately safer than human drivers.

“The computers doing the driving don’t get distracted, don’t get tired, don’t get drunk,” Kirk said.

Kicking the tires

More Canadian companies are starting to kick the tires in search of business opportunities around the technology, too. Although CAVCOE expected about 100 people to show up for a recent Ottawa event on that topic, Kirk was pleasantly surprised when more than twice that number turned out.

Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry Ltd. has emerged as a Canadian leader in the space. Last fall it inked a deal to provide its QNX software to Ford and develop more QNX applications for the automaker. Although the agreement currently involves using QNX for in-car entertainment systems, QNX is, so far, the only operating system certified for use in the development of autonomous driving systems.

BlackBerry also opened its Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Centre inside QNX’s Ottawa headquarters last December. QNX software is already in about 60 per cent of all cars worldwide, a figure likely to rise as demand for autonomous vehicle technology grows.

Sizing up future commercial opportunities, CAVCOE predicts autonomous vehicles will fuel demand for sensors, image processors, radar systems, OS software, data collection, data fusion, processing algorithms, AI, vehicle/occupant interface technology, anti-hacking security and in-car real time data about maps, weather and traffic.

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