In recent years, autonomous vehicle (AV) technology has undergone rapid development and it is predicted that AVs may soon be in a state to displace human driving altogether. In Ontario, the Automated Vehicle Pilot Program is currently in place to permit the testing of certain AVs by vehicle manufacturers. As AV technology continues to develop, however, Canada will likely need to legislate the commercial use of AVs by its residents. Canada’s current legal framework in this area is still at an early stage of development.

In this post, we provide an overview of AV technology and the current legal framework in place in Canada for AV testing. In the posts to follow, we will take a closer look at the legal implications associated with introducing AVs for commercial use in Canada. Specifically, we will discuss cybersecurity, privacy, and owner and product liability as they relate to AVs.

AV Technology Today

AVs employ a “sense-plan-act” design.  AVs include sensor systems such as camera systems, light detection and ranging, and ultrasonic sensors that gather raw data about the outside world and how the AV interacts with it. AVs also include electronic control units that are programmed to interpret the raw data and execute commands to the vehicle’s systems. In other words, AVs gather information from their internal and external surroundings and use this information to inform how the vehicle operates. 

Despite the progress made in AV technology, AVs are still not as effective as humans at sensing and understanding complex or changing environments. It is generally accepted that further improvements need to be made before AVs are safe for commercial use.

Canada’s Current Legal Framework for AV Testing

In Canada, driving and road safety is a shared responsibility between provincial/territorial and federal governments. The provincial and territorial governments are responsible for regulating vehicle drivers and vehicle use in their jurisdictions (including approving and overseeing AV trials).  The federal government (Transport Canada) establishes safety regulations for vehicles sold in Canada. AVs will also raise complex liability, cybersecurity and privacy issues. As such, the deployment of AVs requires action from both levels of government. We summarize key laws and guidelines concerning AV testing below.  

The Automated Vehicle Pilot Program in Ontario

In 2016, Ontario began a 10-year pilot program under the Highway Traffic Act to allow testing certain AVs on Ontario’s roads under strict conditions.  Among other things, participants must provide the Ministry of Transportation with a list of participating vehicles, the timing of testing, and an annual report of testing information.  To be eligible for the program, the participant must be the original manufacturer of the AV or the entity that converted the motor vehicle to an AV motor vehicle. Ontario updated the program in 2019 to permit driverless testing, subject to certain additional conditions.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act (MVSA)

The MVSA is a federal act that establishes safety regulations for manufacturing and importing motor vehicles and related equipment.  The MVSA was amended in 2018 to provide a temporary exemption from compliance with motor vehicle standards if granting the exemption would promote developing new kinds of vehicles or related technologies. This amendment was necessary to ensure AV testing was being conducted in Canada in compliance with the MVSA. 

In the future, AVs sold in Canada will likely need to comply with MVSA requirements. The MVSA in its current form does not, however, include any provisions explicitly relating to AVs. We expect that changes will be made to the law in the foreseeable future to regulate AV technology. 

Guidelines for Testing Automated Driving Systems

Transport Canada has released guidelines that constitute a baseline of best practices to ensure AV testing and trials are conducted safely.  These guidelines were originally published in 2018 and updated in 2021.

The most recent version of these guidelines (the Guidelines for Testing Automated Driving Systems in Canada Version 2.0) describes the various approvals trial organizations are required to seek from the government, and safety considerations that should be managed before and throughout trials. Pre-trial considerations include assessing the safety of the test vehicle, establishing safety management strategies, and communicating with first responders and law enforcement about ongoing testing. Safety considerations that should be managed throughout the trial include applying a graduated approach to testing, adapting safety management strategies, and developing and maintaining incident response plans.

The authors would like to thank Student at Law Sandeep Patel for his assistance in preparing this update.