The 2013 e6 from Chinese manufacturer BYD has been modified to help develop navigation systems and other equipment created in the province that would be crucial components in the potentially massive world of self-driving vehicles.
“In the next few years, the types of products that go into autonomous systems, the market looks like about $100 billion,” Ken Brizel said Friday as the driverless electric compact crossover crawled around an empty parking lot in the Edmonton Research Park at 10 km/h.
“The market is going nuts … That’s why we’re here.”
Brizel is chief executive of the Alberta Centre for Advanced Micro Nanotechnolgy Products (ACAMP), a non-profit group that for the last decade has helped companies develop cutting-edge technology.
ACAMP started a consortium about a year ago that has 34 local and multinational organizations designing the sensors, cameras, security systems and other equipment for autonomous transportation.
It took four months to strip down the donated e6 — BYD is part of the consortium — and install the new machinery.
The back holds a server frame with relays and switches into which different components can be plugged for trials.
Although the vehicle stays off public roads as a computer program guides it in rough figure eights, someone sits behind the wheel to take control or punch the red stop button if problems arise.
Otherwise, there’s not much for an onlooker to see. Travelling in the back seat is about the same as inching around a parking lot with your grandmother.
“Honestly, for me, coming from a farm background, the idea of a vehicle steering itself isn’t so new,” operator Radon Chatterton said, explaining modern tractors are generally governed by GPS.
“The fact I built it is a little more frightening.”
But the technology is impressive. One item going through testing is a navigation system by Calgary’s NovAtel, while Edmonton-based Soltare has a device that detects police, ambulance and fire sirens and warns other vehicles to pull over.
Siamak Akhlaghi, ACAMP’s director of business development for autonomous systems, said Alberta is a good place to perfect such equipment because of the weather.
“There’s so many challenges to have a solution that would work everywhere. Work on ice, work in a desert,” he said.
“Here in Alberta you’re working with an electronic car in -30 C. You’re going to see so many challenges you’re not going to see in California — the traction of the roads, how the battery would behave.”
They’re also consulting with three levels of government on regulations needed to allow such vehicles on the streets.
About half of ACAMP’s $4.2-million annual budget is covered by company fees and the rest comes from the provincial government to spur economic diversification.
Brizel would love to see BYD open a factory assembling driverless vehicles in Alberta.
“Let’s say you wanted to build a plant here to support Western Canada. That wouldn’t be outrageous. The batteries can still be made in China and shipped here,” he said.
“It could be huge.”