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Communitech paving the way for the future of autonomous vehicles

In this edition of 'Following Up', we speak with Kevin Tuer from Communitech about the region's autonomous vehicle project
UW's autonomous vehicle
University of Waterloo’s Autonomoose, Canada’s first autonomous vehicle. Photo supplied by the University of Waterloo

With a sizable population of the workforce working from home, cars across the region have been sitting idle for months. As of late, roadways are less congested, but the day will come when city streets will return to normal.

And as the roadways repopulate with commuters, the next eventual phase of future transportation includes self-driving cars, albeit much further down the road.

Since November 2018, Communitech has been at the forefront of the autonomous vehicle innovation. Waterloo was selected as one of the six regional development sites for the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN).

Kevin Tuer is the of Vice President Strategic Initiatives at Communitech and provided an update on the latest developments regarding the prospect of self-driving vehicles. He emphasized that high definition mapping is one of the most critical aspects of autonomous vehicles, giving the car a roadmap of where and when to travel.

“Why high definition mapping matters is because autonomous vehicles will require maps to navigate autonomously,” Tuer said. “They need something to following, they need to know where to go, and they need to know the pathways to get there. We decided that that what’s we would take on as part of the larger AVIN initiative.”

Communitech recently partnered with a company called Ecopia to develop what they call Open HD Map and they’re nearing the completion of the first version of their platform. The map essentially becomes the digital twin of a city and Communitech sees the potential for many applications to tie into this platform, not just autonomous vehicles.

“The map becomes what we use GPS navigation systems for now. The HD map is like what the navigation system is for us as we get into our car now,” Tuer said. “It’s absolutely essential for the autonomous vehicle to know where to go. Without the map, navigation would be impossible.”

Mapping a city and programming a self-driving vehicle comes with its challenges in the Canadian climate. Instead of a Google car, where they’re driving in optimal conditions in states like California or Arizona, the Communitech team encompasses all four seasons when programming for their autonomous vehicles.

In laying the groundwork for self-driving cars, it becomes evident the dozens of calculations the human brain needs to factor in when driving down the road. The autonomous vehicle needs to replicate all those calculations in real-time, which can be an arduous task, especially on busy streets.

“It’s not the driving down the 401 per se that’s the difficult thing,” Tuer said. “It’s navigating around cities and busier parts of our road networks, be it pedestrians, cyclists, stop lights, whatever. That’s the challenge. Providing the means and the capabilities for autonomous vehicles to do all that processing and make good decisions in real-time.”

Communitech works alongside the University of Waterloo and they have a test track for the autonomous vehicles on Erb Street and work on a daily basis to develop and test the vehicles.

The emergence of 5G networks will be the next phase of evolution for the world of autonomous vehicles. In its current state, Tuer says 4G networks can’t provide the real-time feedback without latency that’s paramount to the performance and accuracy of self-driving cars.

“Right now, 4G LTE won’t do that because the latency and the bandwidth just aren’t sufficient enough to support real-time applications, but 5G will,” Tuer said. “I see 5G as being able to support a number of what I consider mission critical tasks that the networks of today just cannot do.”

Technology is what will propel autonomous vehicles to the forefront, and technology keeps ventures like AVIN afloat thanks to the ability for members to work remotely. Rather than take their foot off the gas, Tuer believes it's time to hit the accelerator and drive into the future.

“Innovation can’t slow down because of a pandemic,” Tuer said. “In fact, I think quite the opposite has to occur; we need to take the opportunity to learn quickly, pivot if need be, revise, revisit what our value proposition is, and make sure that we’re continuing to deliver value to our customers.”
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