Richmond company testing driverless delivery cars, but are B.C. roads ready?

A Richmond delivery company is trying to take a step into the future by introducing driverless cars into its fleet.

Novex Delivery Solutions, which offers same-day delivery and freight service across the Lower Mainland by using a fleet of hybrid and fully-electric cars, already bills itself as carbon neutral and boasts of fewer emissions than any other courier.

Now they’re taking their mission further by experimenting with the autopilot features of the Tesla Model 3 to see if they can cut drivers out of the equation, as well.

The company’s president and Vancouver Park Board commissioner John Coupar said the move is all about improving efficiency.

“The ability to do more deliveries and provide more service, that’s something we’re very excited to be exploring,” Coupar said.

Novex brand manager Brett Surgenor said the technology could allow drivers to leave the cars to make their deliveries while the cars circle the block, eliminating the need for parking — and saving even more time.

“Seven per cent of the time we [drivers] waste is spent trying to find that elusive parking spot,” Surgenor said. “The best part is, when the car is driving around while the driver makes their delivery, it’s still emission-free.”

The company purchased their small autonomous fleet last year and have been testing the technology out in secret ever since.

The technology isn’t fully autonomous: while Novex is testing the idea out, drivers are still at the wheel at all times, ready to take over in case the technology runs into trouble.

That’s because the cars still have trouble recognizing red lights and other vehicles that are in front of them — something Coupar said actually makes the testing process more exciting.

“It’s still learning, but the great part about it is when I take [the car] out of autopilot and take over, it takes that information and it’s using it when it builds its algorithms,” he said. “So it’s exciting to be part of that data exchange, so to speak.”

B.C. laws also don’t currently allow driverless vehicles on the roads, but the Ministry of Transportation said in a statement Friday that they’re continuing to monitor improvements to the technology.

“The ministry is actively monitoring the development of autonomous vehicles as they are being tested in B.C. and other jurisdictions from a technology point of view, a safety point of view and a policy point of view,” the ministry said.

“We have also established a working group to look into insurance requirements, policy and regulatory implications, and potential challenges related to autonomous vehicles operating in B.C.,” the statement continued, “including introducing these vehicles on public roads, and identifying gaps that exist in B.C.’s infrastructure.”

UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture associate professor AnnaLisa Meyboom said while testing driverless cars could lead to positive change, she’s worried the technology could lead to more congestion on the roads.

“Not only will people be driving to somewhere, but then the empty cars will also be relocating to another place to pick someone else up,” she said.

On the other hand, Meyboom added more people could be able to get around cities in vehicles than ever before thanks to driverless technology, including the disabled and the blind.

Coupar said making vehicle technology more accessible, and having it reach more people than ever before, is also his goal at Novex.

“The future is coming, and we’re excited to see where it takes us next,” he said.

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