Toronto autonomous shuttle pilot project ends after vehicle company closes, Whitby crash

Citing concerns after a Whitby crash and the closure of a manufacturer, officials in Toronto are ending the West Rouge autonomous shuttle pilot project. Nick Westoll reports.

Government officials have pulled the plug on an autonomous shuttle pilot project in Toronto’s east end even before passengers could try it, citing the closure of the vehicle’s manufacturer and a crash of a similar vehicle in Whitby.

“While we are disappointed that the shuttle has come to an end, I’m certainly looking toward what are the next steps to microtransit in Toronto,” Scarborough–Rouge Park Coun. Jennifer McKelvie told CityNews on Monday.

Officials with the City of Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission and Metrolinx said in a statement multiple factors would have affected the start of the pilot project for passengers.

Local Motors, the manufacturer of the Olli vehicles, closed and therefore no one could provide future support should the vehicles require it.

In mid-December, an Olli vehicle crashed into a tree. Durham Regional Police previously said it was operated in manual mode by the driver at the time. Alone in the shuttle, he suffered serious injuries. The exact circumstances leading up to the crash is still not clear.

A Metrolinx spokesperson wasn’t available for an on-camera interview on Monday, but a statement provided to CityNews said the provincial transportation agency provided $100,000 funding for the project.

The statement said the organization said staff are looking for ways to “enhance” transit connections to get to GO Transit as well as local transit routes and hubs.

“The main goal of Metrolinx participating in these pilots is to evaluate the application of this type of autonomous vehicle technology in a public transit setting, exploring how it could support ‘first mile, last mile’ solutions,” it said.

“The insights gained from this work will support future decision-making and planning on the potential integration of this technology into transit systems, which supports our goal.”

McKelvie said she generally heard positive comments from residents about the service and how it would help connect to Rouge Hill GO station, but added the main complaint was how it only travelled 20 km/h during the testing phase.

Sunil Bisnath, a professor of geomatics at York University, said he supports stopping the project for now, recognizing it takes considerable time to build public buy-in on new types of technologies.

“When people make mistakes and there are accidents we’ve been living with that, with the automobile for a century, but if a machine appears to make a mistake, humans are much less forgiving,” he said.


RELATED: Whitby autonomous bus in manual mode when it crashed and driver seriously injured, police say


Despite the end of the West Rouge autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot project, Bisnath said the basis of the technology is sound and added generally there are a lot of safety precautions factored in.

But he said even though there is a high level of sophistication up to this point, continual refinements to things like GPS, localization sensors, artificial intelligence and computer processing will make the technology better in future years.

Bisnath said we could see gradual enhancements to transit vehicles similar to how cars have seen growing improvements such as lane-assist driving and automatic braking.

Mehdi Nourinejad, an assistant engineering professor at York University, called Toronto’s announcement disappointing and sad, but echoed these types of autonomous projects focus on safety.

“AV pilots are a lot like workout programs. You don’t start lifting heavy at your first day at the gym. You start slow and you add progression,” he said, adding there’s a need to take additional steps such as additional driver training and to take another look at the structure of the pilot projects.

“Taking baby steps and making sure there is some way of adding progression to the pilots, progression could be an operator that initially has full control, partial control, no control, progressively eliminate that driver but making sure all safety protocols are in place.”

A stop for the West Rouge automated shuttle at the entrance to Rouge National Urban Park in Scarborough. CITYNEWS / Nick Westoll

Speaking more broadly, Nourinejad said safety-related issues should be front and centre but slowing and stopping investments in autonomous vehicles would mean passing up on creating jobs. He said there needs to be stronger collaboration between the public and private sectors.

“If you look at parallel companies and parallel cities that are also working on these pilots, these accidents happen. Typically when they happen, they are not that extensive,” he said, calling for additional education on the sector.

Meanwhile, McKelvie said she’s calling for a report to come back to the TTC board on the lessons learned and the early data. She said the information should come back by the summer.

However, McKelvie said she still hopes similar transit projects can continue to be worked on and developed.

“I think there’s still a lot of testing that needs to be done about how microtransit can improve ridership and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. I think this was the first trial, but I don’t think it will be the last,” she said, adding the data from the first couple of months will be valuable.

“Really what’s important here is how we can get people to abandon their cars to make the transition onto transit.”

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