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Driverless cars learn to see in the snow

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Testing driverless cars in cold climates brings added challenges to an industry grappling with the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle.

On Sunday, an Uber Technologies Inc self-driving sport utility vehicle hit and killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona.

Blackberry (BB.TO) said on Wednesday it will continue testing its self-driving concept car on the road in Ottawa.The Canadian province of Ontario, which allows autonomous vehicles on roads only if there is a human driver behind the wheel, has said it would follow the Arizona investigation and take “action if warranted.”

Canada’s largest city, Toronto, is one of three places where Uber tests driverless technology – the other cities are Phoenix, Arizona, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Automakers, ride services companies and others are investing in self-driving technology said to reduce accidents, and the costs of a driver, with robo-taxis expected to hit the road as early as this year.

A wider rollout, however, is expected to take years, if not decades, as companies work to prove autonomous vehicles can run not just in balmy U.S. states, where they are mostly tested, but in colder areas like Ontario and Michigan where snow and sleet can render cameras and sensors ineffective.

Ross McKenzie, managing director of the Waterloo Centre of Automotive Research, recalled how a vehicle’s lidar, which uses laser light to help autonomous cars “see” nearby objects, once mistook an ice patch for a pothole.

McKenzie’s research team at the University of Waterloo responded by tweaking the sedan’s software so it would factor in the time of year and weather when driving in the snow and ice, conditions that autonomous vehicles will have to navigate to be commercially viable.

The car needs to consider “we have winter driving conditions because I’m in Canada, it’s November and it’s 15 below,” McKenzie said by phone.

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