Beyond Ring Road: Where will Waterloo's self-driving shuttle go next?

The WatonoBus has gained attention around the world

The WATonoBus is a small but mighty shuttle making history as it picks up passengers on the University of Waterloo’s Ring Road.

Amir Khajepour

“Ring Road is a great testbed for autonomous vehicles because it has intersections, railroad tracks, bicycles, jaywalkers and construction – it’s a busy environment,” says Engineering Professor Amir Khajepour (PhD ’96), Canada Research Chair in Mechatronic Vehicle Systems. “But it’s also a great way for us to give another service to the University.”

The autonomous, eight-passenger minibus was launched in spring 2021 and is being developed by a team, led by Khajepour, of more than 20 researchers in the Mechatronic Vehicle Systems Laboratory.

The shuttle has gained attention around the world, but Khajepour points out the technology behind the first self-driving shuttle at a Canadian university will likely make its way into health care, resorts, airports, mining and other industries long before you find yourself behind the wheel of your own self-driving car.

We’re just scratching the surface with this technology. It’s a complicated thing and that’s why so many people are working on it.

The appetite for autonomous technology has only increased during COVID-19 as countries like China use it to transport goods, medical supplies and passengers in quarantine zones. Khajepour hopes the data gathered through projects like WATonoBus will bring similar applications to Canada. “We’re just scratching the surface with this technology. It’s a complicated thing and that’s why so many people are working on it,” Khajepour says.

“I think of the social damage that COVID-19 caused, especially in long-term care facilities,” Khajepour adds. “Imagine if these residents could sit on some autonomous mobility system, protected by an enclosure, that would allow them to move around and interact with their family and friends. This would offload duties of front-line workers so they could focus on bigger responsibilities. It’s not meant to reduce jobs, but rather create efficiencies in our work. There are so many socially-benefiting applications for this technology.”

Perfecting the next generation of technology

To get autonomous technology just right, safety provisions remain top priority during trials and data-collecting cycles. For WATonoBus, a driver will remain in the passenger seat until laws ease for the spot to sit vacant. A remote driver, who monitors the cameras and sensors, will also be part of the process. Both act as a safety net to navigate unpredictable circumstances like foggy weather, new construction projects or emergency situations.



“We are also going to equip a portion of north campus with stationary sensor nodes to evaluate another level of perception and safety to automated driving in complex urban environments,” Khajepour says. “These nodes will give us more angles to monitor the shuttle and the possibility of controlling these shuttles through high-speed edge and cloud computing.”

Exposure to this real-world research is putting Khajepour’s students in high demand. Building the next generation of technology comes with a specific skill set that only a few will have access to so early in their academic and professional careers.

It’s exciting and a good sign when a professor sees their students getting job offers even before they finish their studies.

“It’s exciting and a good sign when a professor sees their students getting job offers even before they finish their studies,” Khajepour says. “We have excellent students working on cutting-edge technologies. I am happy that our school and our faculties are playing a role in training our future engineers and entrepreneurs.”