Automakers Turn to Canada’s Researchers to Make Driving Safer

On The Road

Automakers Turn to Canada’s Researchers to Make Driving Safer

A record-setting number of Canadians streamed through the turnstiles to see the latest vehicles on display at this year’s edition of the Canadian International AutoShow (CIAS).

They were not disappointed. Forty-one cars and trucks made their Canadian debut. Nearly every vehicle on shining display featured the latest in technology that helps make driving safer.

One new type of technology, called safe drive systems (SDS), scan the lanes to the left and right of the vehicle watching anything entering into the driver’s blind spots. They also monitor the distance from the vehicle ahead to prevent rear-end collisions by sending a warning.

If the driver doesn’t heed the warning, the technology tightens the seat belts of everyone in the car and applies the brakes. It even warns the driver when they exceed the speed limit.

Our law-makers are recognizing the potential for safety with these advancements. Back-up cameras will be mandatory for new cars sold in Canada starting May 2018.

With the help of Canadian researchers, SDS have come a long way from the research lab to our streets and highways.

Canada’s university researchers are at the heart of SDS development

The CIAS devoted a segment on AutoShow Live, its Facebook livestream channel, to honour Canada’s unsung road safety heroes: university researchers whose work makes driving safer.

Ross McKenzie is the director of auto research at the University of Waterloo. He pointed out that Waterloo is home to 130 professors and 300 undergraduate and postgraduate students who do auto research.

Every automaker that assembles vehicles in Canada funds research projects at Ontario universities. McKenzie told Norris McDonald, AutoShow Live’s host, that devices like cruise control are so complex that more often than not, automakers have nowhere to turn but to universities. “And that’s what drives research,” he says.

Canadian International AutoShow attendees look at cars
Source: Canadian International AutoShow, 2017

The search for made-in-Canada solutions will make SDS truly safe

Dr. Sazzadur Chowdhury is the associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Windsor.

Chowdhury says Canada’s weather and road surfaces call for made-in-Canada solutions.

“If you use a camera to determine if the car is wandering, the camera tries to identify the lane markings to see if the car is in position. But what if the markings aren’t visible because snow has covered them?”

He says Light Detection and Ranging, a combination of radar and laser, or LIDAR, is a step in the right direction.

A version of LIDAR is currently available for consumers. It’s a device about the size of a hockey puck. It’s meant to be mounted on a car roof, but at $8,000 (US) per device, it’s a very pricey accessory for the average family sedan.

Chowdhury’s team is working on a smaller and low-cost, all-weather system with 360-degree vision.

Canada’s weather and road surfaces call for made-in-Canada solutions

He foresees SDS communicating from vehicle-to-vehicle to avoid a typical four-car pileup. In short, what is needed are radars, cameras and LIDAR devices working together to make the right moves. “Instead of one trying to avoid a collision, you need a collective effort.”

But that’s still on the drawing board.

Even most sophisticated cruise control systems now on the market can’t cope with the situations that lead to multi-car pileups. So any driver who thinks they can turn on their cruise control and take their eyes off the road to text or sip on a latte better think again.

‘Situational awareness’

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., have developed algorithms now used in SDS to warn drivers about dangers, such as pedestrians or debris ahead. The work is part of a four-year program started at the university in 2016.

Dr. Thia Kirubarajan, assistant chair for graduate studies in computer engineering at McMaster, says the algorithms help the SDS to process data in milliseconds and then react.

Kirubarajan calls it “situational awareness,” making the driver aware of conditions around them. Still, the algorithms only work well under reasonable weather conditions, which is not a description of Canadian winter weather. But the research, some of it for a leading automaker, continues.

“The work is not theoretical. It is in different stages of being useful for the real world.”

Out of the lab and onto the road

Anton Pawczuk is a product planner who works for an automaker here. He has helped test and fine-tune the automaker’s SDS in Canada. Testing took four years before its launch in 2012.

Pawczuk was at the wheel when the SDS faced the rigors of winter driving in Yellowknife and on an ice road near Great Slave Lake at -37 C.

He says lines on the roads bewildered the SDS. They were painted differently from those in the United States, and often not well. Roads were patched with tar, not concrete, and that confused the lane departure warning systems.

“That was a challenge for cameras,” he recalls. “And we had lots of snow. When the camera looks at the road, it sees snow strips and that confuses the camera that might be lane markers.”

Tire tread marks also confused the system’s cameras into thinking they were lane markings.

The automaker made the adjustments.

Still, Pawczuk warns that the system makes driving safer. But the driver must remain alert.

“The system is not autonomous. It’s a second pair of eyes for the road.”

The devices are indispensable tools for safe driving. But they are not a substitute for driver awareness. That SDS were featured on the cars and trucks on display at this year’s CIAS was proof that they have made their way from the lab to the showroom, however.

The journey could not have been made without the help of Canadian researchers, and their research goes on.