Drivers in Ontario may soon have to share the province's roads with some automated counterparts.

Ontario's Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca announced a pilot project on Tuesday that will allow the testing of self-driving cars on provincial roads, beginning on January 1 of next year.

"Ontario will lead Canada as the first province to allow the testing of automated vehicles and related technology on our roads," said Del Duca in a speech at the University of Waterloo.

However, tests on the driverless cars won't be conducted without someone behind the wheel.

"Significant work has been done to ensure that our province's road safety will not be compromised," said Del Duca.

A human operator will be in the driver's seat, ready to take over in case the vehicles run into any bumps along the road.

If there is a crash, Del Duca says it will be the human operator who will take the blame.

"God forbid if there's a collision that happens during the pilot process, the individual who would be in that car with the appropriate licence would be responsible," said Del Duca.

Other rules include:

  • The vehicles will have to be registered as autonomous
  • The vehicles must have an insurance policy worth $5 million
  • Crashes must be reported within 10 days

From the gridlocked lanes of Highway 401 to more narrow provincial roads, there are no restrictions on where the self-driving cars may go.

Driverless cars are capable of navigating through sensors, artificial intelligence, and global positioning systems.

The government says automated and connected-vehicle technologies can improve fuel efficiency and help reduce traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and driver distraction.

Barrie Kirk, the executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, called the announcement a "big step forward" and said that self-driving cars could lead to "much safer" roads.

He believes that the automated vehicles could reduce "80 per cent of collisions, deaths and injuries."

Kirk cited a 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation that said human error is the critical reason for 93 per cent of crashes.

"Basically humans make poor drivers," said Kirk. "(Whereas) computers never get distracted, are never drunk and they have senses that span 360 degrees, 30 times a second (with) greater situational awareness."

Paul Rocco, president of Provectus Robotics Solutions, uses similar types of technology in his company's robots, and says that self-driving vehicles will reduce the risk for human passengers.

"Having sensors around that can respond and react very, very quickly … in various conditions can keep the roads safer," he said.

"It's also giving the ability to make the roads more efficient, having cars operate faster … closer together," he added.

Del Duca plans to meet with the officials from the insurance industry at the end of the month to discuss how to move forward with the rollout of driverless cars.

"The insurance industry will have to work with us on this and we'll have to work with the industry to make sure we get it right," said Del Duca.

The government says the move will also open up opportunities for companies to engage in research and development of the technology in the province, and help make it available to consumers sooner.

Global leaders in computing, such as Google and Apple, have been racing to refine self-driving technology. Google already has a fleet of 48 robot cars that have clocked in more than 2 million miles on private tracks, highways and roads across the U.S.

Ride-sharing service Uber is also working on the technology at its lab in Pittsburgh.

Automakers, such as General Motors and Toyota, have also recently joined the race. Toyota is promising to start selling self-driving cars in Japan by 2020 and GM has announced it would test a fleet of hybrid Chevrolet Volts at its campus in Michigan.

Kirk said similar regulations have been enacted in several U.S. states, including California and Nevada, and the pilot project will open up a lot of "business opportunities for Canadian companies."

He added that very few companies in Ontario are currently building automated vehicles, but as the amount of technology that goes into a vehicle grows, innovative Canadians businesses will have a chance to capitalize.

"There's a lot of companies in Ontario, and indeed in other parts of Canada, who are wonderful at technology and can develop the software, the sensors, the security systems that these cars will need and they will be able to compete on a huge multi-billion-dollar global market."

University of Waterloo students Michael Skupien and Alex Rodrigues developed a self-driving golf cart earlier this year.

And whether the province's drivers are ready to hand over the wheel to their cybernetic equivalents, Skupien says the machines are coming.

"The industry is obviously really, really young. Autonomous vehicles are going to be a thing in the next 10 to 20 years."

With files from CTV Ottawa, CTV Kitchener and The Canadian Press