Ottawa's L5 test facility aims to pave the way for a driverless future

16-kilometre track in Ottawa’s south end will provide four-season proving ground for the latest in autonomous vehicle technology
autonomous vehicles

This article is part of an OBJ series on smart city technology. To read about a proposal for a smart neighbourhood on LeBreton Flats, check out this op-ed.

What a lot of winter-weary Ottawa residents might consider to be the city’s biggest curse – its weather – is a godsend for the organizations behind a cutting-edge new facility for testing autonomous vehicles.

The 16-kilometre track located at the site of the former Ottawa Biotechnology Incubation Centre off Woodroffe Avenue is designed to test driverless cars in all kinds of conditions without endangering the public. The gated 1,866-acre property – dubbed L5 to indicate it can accommodate vehicles with full “level 5” autonomy – features real streets, intersections and buildings equipped with high-tech sensors and infrastructure such as “smart” construction cones that can detect cyclists and pedestrians.

Invest Ottawa is the lead partner on the project, which is expected to formally open in March and includes millions of dollars in new communications technology supplied by industry heavyweights such as Ericsson and Nokia. The economic development agency received a $5-million funding grant last year from the provincial government’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network program, which is aimed at building clusters in various parts of Ontario that will specialize in different aspects of AV technology.

The largest track of its kind in Canada, L5 will be responsible for testing and developing communications systems that allow cars to talk to one another and related traffic infrastructure such as traffic signals and streetlights. 

Besides Ericsson and Nokia, other partners in the project include the National Capital Commission, which owns the property, as well as tech firms BlackBerry QNX, IBM and Juniper Networks. The city’s four main post-secondary institutions – Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, Algonquin College and La Cité collegiale – will also contribute to the initiative.

In addition, several local startups specializing in smart city technology will be setting up their products at the site, giving them a chance to see how their tech holds up under the toughest real-world situations.

“If you’re a small to medium enterprise company, you can test advanced engineering scenarios without having to invest in the infrastructure to make it happen,” says Invest Ottawa CEO Mike Tremblay. “It’s all in one package.”

Weathering the storm

Besides those organizations, the other key player in the equation is one that won’t be producing any technology but will instead be supplying the unpredictable conditions: Mother Nature.

Industry partners say Ottawa’s bone-chilling winters and hot, humid summers will provide the ideal laboratory for the software, sensors and other technology needed to make sure driverless cars get safely to their destinations in all types of weather.

“If we’re having a snowstorm, or rain or whatever the weather can throw at Ottawa, our cars are on the road,” says Grant Courville, vice-president of product management and strategy at Kanata-based BlackBerry QNX, which makes software platforms that help power many AV applications.

“The autonomous vehicles today still aren’t at the point where they’re as safe and as good as human drivers are at controlling the vehicle. We know we have to get there, and we all will, but we’re also trying to solve the really difficult problems such as what do you do in a snowstorm and wind and rain and which sensors are going to work well in those environments and which sensors are not going to work so well in those environments.” 

The site will feature an array of one- and two-way streets with speed bumps and pedestrian crosswalks, in addition to a pair of intersections with traffic lights and others with four-way and three-way stops. Sensors attached to traffic signals and streetlights will feed data about the cars’ locations back to an on-site control centre via a high-speed wireless network. A 5.2-kilometre high-speed test loop is expected to be added to the facility in the future.

Nokia and Ericsson will use the site to test the latest in 5G networking technology, which aims to dramatically speed up the flow of information between wireless devices. Other equipment being installed at L5 includes sensors and software from General Electric’s digital industrial business Current, which can detect sounds such as gunshots or traffic collisions and alert police. 

“There is no place like it in North America to test.”

“There is no place like it in North America to test,” says Kelly Daize, the director of the AVIN program at Invest Ottawa. “My hope is it will allow us to adopt this technology faster and safer.”

Among the local firms that will be showcasing their technology at the track is Invest Ottawa-based Smats Traffic Solutions. The two-and-a-half-year-old startup – which makes sensors that measure traffic flows using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals from connected cars and wireless devices – says L5 is an ideal proving ground for its products.   

“It’s a great help for us,” says Smats founder Amir Ghods, whose firm’s customers include municipal governments and border agencies. “Typically, finding private roads like that that are equipped with everything, it’s not something you can get unless you ask somebody to give you permission to block roads or you go at midnight.”

Courville, who calls Ottawa a “hotbed” for emerging AV technology, predicts the test site will be a valuable piece of infrastructure for decades to come.

Car-to-car communications is still in its infancy, he notes, adding it will likely be “a couple of decades” before we see vehicles navigating their way along city streets at any time of the day and in any weather conditions without a human at the wheel.

“You’re going to see autonomous vehicles before then, but it’ll be in controlled environments – only on certain roads at certain speeds, on nice, sunny days,” he explains. “The really hard problems, that’s going to take quite a while. So the need for that private track is going to stand for a couple of decades. It’s that kind of environment that we need.”