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Self-driving versus the lawyers

Fully autonomous farm vehicles are already here, but setting the rules for their use won’t be simple

The Senate of Canada had a pretty simple question when it held the hearings that led to is report, “Driving Change, Technology and the Future of the Automated Vehicle.” It’s a question farmers are asking too. When is all this technology going to arrive?

You couldn’t exactly say the experts answered it with precision. Their predicted timeframes ranged from “sooner rather than later” to “later rather than sooner,” so to speak.

While the report looked at the whole spectrum of future autonomous vehicles — including off-road machines — and their implications for how we do things and how we get around, what it seemed to miss was that fully autonomous farm machines ready to work fields have already become a reality.

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Regina-based DOT Technologies (a spinoff SeedMaster company) was ready to put the first wave of DOT autonomous machines to work this past summer, but as yet there are no clearly defined rules governing their travel over public roads as they move between fields. Though at least one witness at the Senate hearing saw that one coming. “The technology will outpace regulation,” he is quoted as saying in the report.

Cory Beaujot, managing director for marketing at DOT Technologies, finds himself dealing with exactly that situation as the company prepares to get its prototypes working in real-world trials.

Going forward, the uncertainty around regulations could determine where the company looks to expand as it gets up to full speed manufacturing DOT robots.

“A lot of the conversations around safety in various jurisdictions are going to be based on where do we go next (to look for markets),” he explained. “For the next year or two, we’re really going to remain focused on Western Canada: Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, maybe one or two (states) in the United States.”

In the meantime, the company has designed and built a customized trailer to haul the robots over public roads, which mostly sidesteps the problem of regulations for now.

With all this in mind, I found myself a little disappointed with the Senate report. In all the 69 pages of content, only a measly two paragraphs were devoted to agricultural machines.

“Before we actually launched DOT last year, a couple of months before that, we started trying to get in front of the Saskatchewan bodies at the very least, SGI (Sask­atchewan Government Insurance), the department of transportation folks, that kind of thing,” Beaujot reported. “We want to keep those conversations going. We’ve engaged with another outside body to make those kinds of connections outside of Saskatchewan with other legislative bodies. So there are a lot of pieces moving.”

Others want answers too. “There is a need for legislation, absolutely, to allow these vehicles to operate on our roads in mixed traffic,” said Kwei Quaye, vice-president of traffic safety and driver services at SGI.

In 2016, Ontario became the first province to bring out regulations to allow piloting of these vehicles. No other jurisdiction has anything like that right now.

“We believe that is the first stage, allowing people to pilot them,” Quaye says.

Now, DOT is looking for autonomous vehicles to operate in a convoy. There would be a lead vehicle, followed by DOT and maybe a pilot vehicle (behind) moving it from one piece of land to another.

“SeedMaster (DOT) has to do some homework,” Quaye says. “Ultimately if we can come to the conclusion this is safe to do, we’ll have a permit. This is Saskatchewan, a Saskatchewan innovation, and we’d love to have it run on Saskatchewan roads for the very first route. We’re quite excited about it.”

At the federal level, it is Transport Canada’s job to set safety standards for vehicles using public roads, and it recently released “The Canadian Jurisdictional Guidelines for the Safe Testing and Deployment of Highly Automated Vehicles,” a set of standards for testing autonomous vehicles of all types. And the federal government will be funding some research projects in various locations. The centre of attention here, though, is clearly on tests involving cars, trucks and buses.

In a statement to Country Guide, Transport Canada didn’t have a lot to say about autonomous farm machines using public roads, noting “Transport Canada does not regulate vehicles designed strictly for off-road use, such as farm tractors, construction equipment, or all-terrain vehicles. The ‘Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations’ do not have a prescribed class for farm machines, therefore there are no Canada motor vehicle safety standards that farm machines must meet.”

Which suggests that the autonomous farm machine that needs to move down roads between farm fields doesn’t fit neatly into any regulatory category.

And as if to put an exclamation point on the notion that technology is getting ahead of the rules, another witness referenced in the Senate report noted the government might actually be working against itself in the area of autonomous vehicles.

An example is how the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada Ministry is pushing to stimulate the development of autonomous technologies with projects like the $950 million earmarked for “Supercluster Initiatives,” while at the same time Transport Canada is putting the brakes on the application of those technologies by looking to first establish safety regulations to govern their use.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty doesn’t help. “The sticking points around autonomy may create openings or may create barricades for us to get into various markets,” Beaujot said. “We’ve got to keep on top of all that stuff.”

Nevertheless, Beaujot said, farmers all around the world have been knocking on the door at DOT Technologies. They don’t seem content to wait for regulations to catch up to reality.

As governments work through establishing rules for autonomous vehicles of all types, the complications are many, proving this is a far more complex discussion than many might have expected.

The Senate report notes that “the Insurance Institute of Canada also pointed that the ‘greatest challenge’ around liability will arise not in the era of full automation, but over the next decade when conventional, semi-automated and the first fully automated cars share the roads. This is, in part, because ‘there are no clear rules for determining responsibility, nor approved techniques for securing evidence about liability.’”

In other words, if an autonomous vehicle — including an autonomous farm machine — is involved in a traffic collision, what are the rules to determine whose fault it will be?

Aside from legal questions, there are ethical ones to answer as well.

I remember a conversation I had with a senior executive at one of the major farm machinery brands last year. “If an autonomous vehicle carrying passengers is faced with a situation where it has to run over a pedestrian to avoid going over a cliff, what should it do,” he mused. “What will the rules allow? Do you see the problems involved?”

A few months ago, an autonomous bus was set up to run around the driveway at Parliament Hill. MPs were able to take a joyride in a driverless minibus that was programmed to run on a preprogrammed course. Even that, noted the Senate report, required some significant planning. Because of the complexities involved, it noted that widespread use of autonomous vehicles of different types will likely begin in locations where they can run on preprogrammed routes in closed or semi-closed locations, like, well, farm fields or forestry roads.

As the off-road sectors of agriculture, mining and forestry see opportunities for autonomous machines in the near term and will likely spearhead their commercial introduction, the legal and ethical questions will sooner or later occupy time in the courts.

And there will also be the court of public opinion to contend with.

“I think (risk) is a big part of peoples’ apprehension to adopt autonomous technology, such as what happened in Phoenix with the deaths from an Uber vehicle,” said Beaujot. “Those kinds of things are very present in the minds of people. So we’re prepared for those conversations.”

“Safety. Safety. Safety,” added Quaye, emphasizing what’s on the mind of traffic regulators at the moment. “We just want to make sure it’s safe.”

The change from today’s operator-driven machines to autonomous ones, it seems, will be as much an evolution as a revolution.

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CG Machinery Editor

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