Finland is doing extensive testing of autonomous vehicles (AVs) above the Arctic Circle in hopes of improving the technology enough to make it useful in the unique conditions faced in the northern latitudes of the northern hemisphere. Canada, America, Russia and the other Arctic nations face some unique driving challenges that AVs have not yet mastered. Finland is taking the lead in AV testing and education.
Finland’s Aurora project is allowing the testing of AVs on a 10 kilometre stretch of highway #8 that stretches across from Finland to Norway. The stretch has had the first AVs driving on snowy roads yet. Testing has been ongoing since 2016 on this road which has snow cover for at least six months every year. It’s ideally suited for the task of teaching the AI to drive.
Driving on icy, snow covered, pothole ridden, bumpy roads through ice storms, snow storms, freezing rain and fog are conditions that we live with in Canada. It is dark out for much of the day and driving conditions vary greatly throughout the winter. Teaching the AI to read the conditions has been a challenge. Teaching it to see snow and ice rather than a wall or nothing has proven difficult. The greatest limitations to AVs are these conditions and they must be fully addressed before AVs can be released onto the roads in Canada.
So far, the largest part of AV testing has occurred in central California and Arizona – driving environments that have little resemblance to those faced in northern latitudes. The environment in the north features temperatures regularly in the -20’C range featuring precipitation of all kinds. There needs to be a study of how the vehicles function in remote less well signed and monitored roadways.
The Canadian Senate released a report that concluded federal leadership is required to put Canada into a leading position in the testing of AVs in northern conditions. There will need to be significant investment in testing and in roads infrastructure to incorporate connectivity for AVs and regular cars. Currently the Stratford testing zone in Ontario is the largest site for AV testing in Ontario.
While experts believe that fully autonomous vehicles are decades away from hitting the roads en masse, the snow testing needs to become a priority in Canada in order for the technology to advance. The AVs will need to be resilient to heavy rain, snow and ice and fog. Without the capabilities for safely travelling in our climate the technology will not be adopted.