Years from now, Mayor John Stewart says confidently, this time will be seen as a turning point in Beaumont’s history.
Not only did the Alberta community officially achieve city status in 2019, Beaumont recently hosted the first self-driving vehicle on public streets in Western Canada. Known as ELA – for Electronic Autonomous – the vehicle was part of six-month pilot project between the City of Beaumont and Pacific Western Transportation (PWT) to integrate an autonomous shuttle with regular traffic.
“Beaumontonians are dynamic people who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves, take a risk, and do the hard work that makes success and innovation happen,” says Stewart. “We’re warm, friendly people who are quick to lend a helping hand to our neighbours and we don’t back down from a challenge.”
That challenge currently entails the long-term viability of Beaumont itself. While the community’s demographics are the envy of many – younger, wealthier and more educated than the Alberta median – and it’s well-situated in proximity to the Edmonton International Airport and QE2 highway, the city’s tax base has remained heavily residential.
The city is leaning into its advantages and positioning itself as an ideal location for the testing and commercialization of emerging technology as part of its strategy to encourage economic development and grow its non-residential tax base.
“This council was elected on an agenda of change,” says Stewart. “We recognized that we needed to do things differently and that we had to take bold action to stand out.”
Bold action arrived in the form of ELA. PWT had tested the shuttle on private roads away from cars, trucks and pedestrians, but was looking for a community willing to take a risk and put a self-driving vehicle on a public street. Beaumont agreed to host the project, but there was a catch – there are no national, let alone provincial, traffic safety regulations for autonomous vehicles. Furthermore, insurers were hesitant to underwrite the liability risk.
After several weeks of planning and negotiating with insurers and regulators, Beaumont and PWT got the green light. The project came together quickly, with last minute changes including the installation lane dividers at the behest of insurance providers the day before the pilot commenced.
Stewart attributes the successful rollout to the city administration team’s focus on building a culture of innovation and disruption. Employees are encouraged to take risks, try new idea, adapt and learn; providing, of course, they remain responsible stewards of the public interest.
Still, when the project launched, it received mixed reviews in Beaumont. Many residents voiced skepticism of the project’s benefit, but council and city administration held firm and even implemented vehicle-to-infrastructure technology so ELA and traffic signals could communicate directly with each other – another first in Western Canada.
Outside the city, the project was viewed as a bold statement. At the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Quebec City, Stewart was approached by counterparts in other cities asking how they could host ELA. A delegation of officials from China’s Ministry of Transport visiting the University of Alberta made a side trip to see the project, and the city’s deputy chief administrative officer recently delivered a keynote speech at UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum in the United Arab Emirates, in large part because of Beaumont’s growing reputation.
That doesn’t include the private sector attention Beaumont attracted. Stewart is mum on details, citing the confidentiality of ongoing negotiations.
“We took our lumps and learned that we need to do a better job engaging with residents on projects like this,” acknowledges Stewart. “But between the earned media, conferences and delegations to visit Beaumont, we estimate we received a marketing value north of half a million dollars. And we have some exciting developments in the works that will deliver huge dividends for the city and our residents.”
He does offer some information about two ways Beaumont is capitalizing on its exposure and reputation. The city is partnering with ATB X graduates, Spontivly, a tech upstart piloting an app that leverages technology to solve the challenge of growing social isolation and build strong communities. Beaumont is also about to launch a pilot with LIPK, a company operating a sort of digital vending machine that allows small businesses to sell their products outside of regular retail spaces – the first of its kind in Canada.
“ELA not only set several firsts for Western Canada and provided valuable information that will help regulators and communities prepare for the advent of driverless vehicles, it’s opened up other research and business opportunities that never would have existed for us,” says Stewart.