Autonomous technology put to the test in Stratford, Ont.

Waterloo professors take three-year project from lab to parking lot

Researchers from the University of Waterloo at using two Lincoln MKZs to test autonomous driving.

Nine professors from the University of Waterloo have descended on Stratford, Ont., to test an array of technologies that could be used in autonomous vehicles.

The team is test driving two Lincoln MKZ sedans equipped with several functions critical in developing self-driving cars.

Ross McKenzie, director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR), said the project and testing are “incredibly complex.”

Professors will add pieces of technology, one at a time, with the goal of creating a fully autonomous car at the end of the three-year project.

Researchers are trying to perfect vehicle detection, motion planning, mapping and more. To do so, they are using vision technology, lidar -- which bounces lasers off objects -- and traditional radar, which emits radio waves to identify objects. All of it has to work together to drive the car.

“With everything you add, you have to make sure it works with what you added before,” McKenzie told Automotive News Canada. “The complexity becomes exponential because failure is not an option.” 

Privacy, for safety

Professors arrived in early November and will test drive the vehicles until Dec. 19 in the Stratford Festival’s Queen Street parking lot, surrounded by privacy fence.

The Festival, the city’s economic engine, draws theatre-goers from across Canada and the United States from May through October.

The fence isn’t designed for secrecy; it’s for safety purposes, so the cars aren’t “distracted” by traffic and objects outside the test area.

“There are multiple gathering points of data [in the test area],” McKenzie said. “They get pulled together in real time, processed in parallel and then they come to a decision. For example, is that a person on a bike or is it a tree?”

Ford Motor Co. isn’t directly involved in the project, although the automaker  “is aware” that Lincoln MKZs are being used, McKenzie said.

Waterloo purchased them from Autonomoustuff, an Illinois company that prepares MKZs for autonomous testing by equipping them with roof racks and other harnesses. It also makes the car’s software capable of connecting with whichever technology its buyers are testing. 

From lab to lot

A parking lot in Stratford, Ont., allows researchers to add barriers, lanes and more to test autonomous driving.

Before arriving in Stratford, professors worked in a lab and then conducted limited testing, after hours, in smaller campus parking lots. A larger parking lot gives professors the ability to add more barriers, objects and lanes and conduct more complex testing, McKenzie said.

McKenzie said it’s sometimes difficult to find space large enough to test autonomous vehicles. Stratford offers space and technology.

Stratford has laid about 50 kilometres of fibreoptic cable and installed WiFi across the city.

“They’re very forward looking and proactive,” McKenzie said.

The University of Waterloo has a satellite campus in Stratford, so there was already a partnership between the city and the school.

Calls to Stratford officials weren’t returned. Mayor Dan Mathieson recently told the Stratford Beacon newspaper Stratford’s “smart city” emphasis made it a good fit for WatCAR’s research.

“We thought it would be a great idea to have them in town for the testing, and see if there was a linkage we could develop with the University of Waterloo and some of these emerging technologies,” he told the paper.

McKenzie noted that forecasts of when autonomous cars will be part of everyday traffic vary widely.

“In order to get from connected to fully autonomous driving, that’s a very complex and multifaceted undertaking. For what range and purpose do you want it to be autonomous?” McKenzie said.

There’s a big difference between a learned route in a small controlled or urban area versus a car that will take riders where they need to go, he said.

You can reach Greg Layson at glayson@autonews.com

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