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Self-driving cars hit city streets

Both Google and Volvo move autonomous tests to more challenging roads

Published May 2, 2014

The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca

Although many driving enthusiasts dread the day when skill is no longer required to operate an automobile, there are others who find driving a chore and can’t wait for technology to take the wheel.

Google and Volvo have been at the forefront of autonomous driving development, and both companies have been testing their self-driving cars in highway settings. This week, both announced that their high-tech cars are now being tested on much more challenging city streets.

Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, posted this week that the cars have now travelled close to 700,000 miles. But the move to city driving (Mountain View, Calif., in this case) presents more challenges.

“We’ve improved our software so it can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously — pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn,” says Urmson. “A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t — and it never gets tired or distracted.”

Volvo has invaded its home town of Gothenburg, Sweden, with a fleet of 100 test cars. Dubbed “Drive Me,” the project is closer to the real world than Google’s, since it involves real drivers.

Volvo’s Autopilot technology invites drivers to sample a 50-km route that the car can mostly navigate by itself.

“This public pilot will provide us with a valuable insight into the societal benefits of making autonomous vehicles a natural part of the traffic environment,” says Volvo technical specialist Erik Coelingh.

Looking at the traffic chaos on Toronto streets, often caused by people more interested in talking on their phones than driving, self-driving cars can only be an improvement. Just don’t make me drive one.

Honda and Scion continue to support Canadian motorsport

At the other end of the spectrum are people who are passionate about driving — many of whom fuel that passion by going racing.

But whether they become involved in a regional series or at a professional level, auto racing is expensive.

Two auto companies continue to offer financial support to Canadian race drivers at the grass roots level.

Scion Canada supports racers who drive a Scion in a variety of disciplines: from autoslalom and time attack to drifting and amateur racing series.

Honda supports aspiring racers through technical programs and contingency rewards for those competing in the Toyo Tires F1600 Championship.

Ford F-150 tops Canadian sales charts in first quarter sales

Ford’s F-150 pickup remains Canada’s top-selling vehicle through the first quarter of 2014, with 24,383 sales — albeit a 5.7-per-cent decline over last year.

The Ram pickup is the second-most popular, with 18,367 sales, a 2.1-per-cent gain over last year.

The top passenger car is the Honda Civic, of which 12,407 found new homes, a 10-per-cent improvement over the same quarter last year. That also bumped Hyundai’s Elantra from the top-car spot it held in the first quarter of 2013.

Florida to up speed limits

Canadian tourists will be pleased to hear that Florida’s senate has agreed to increase speed limits on several interstate highways.

Currently set at 70 mph (112 km/h), the limit on I-4, I-10, I-75, I-90 and the Suncoast Parkway and Florida’s Turnpike may rise to 75 (120 km/h).

Anyone who has travelled from Orlando to either coast will appreciate the shortened travel time.

wheels@thestar.ca

Accord is Canada’s top green car

The 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid was named Canada’s Green Car of the Year at last week’s Green Living show in Toronto.

The winner was chosen by a panel of Canadian auto journalists as the best of six other category winners, including the Volkswagen Jetta, which had tied with the Accord in the Hybrid category.

Wondering how the Accord won the top prize when it tied in its own category, I spoke with awards co-founder Eric Novak.

“As co-category winners, both vehicles were then allowed to be considered for the overall winner,” he explained. “The decision as to who the overall winner would be was a separate one, where the original scoring did not come into play.”

The other category winners were Nissan Leaf, Ford C-MAX Energi, Mazda3 and Mazda5.

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