Using an autonomous bus to reduce food insecurity

By combining social innovation with AI, student works to improve quality of life in a Montréal food desert

Near downtown Montréal, the Little Burgundy neighbourhood reveals many contrasts. In the south, it touches the Lachine Canal, a beautiful 14-kilometre cycling and pedestrian pathway that sees millions of visitors every year. In the north, it is bordered by the busy and grey Ville-Marie Expressway. One of the most multicultural communities in the city, Little Burgundy is home to upscale restaurants and boutiques, but also to a vulnerable population that struggles with food insecurity.

A large part of the neighbourhood’s area is considered a food desert. This means that residents need to travel over 500 metres to have access to fresh food such as fruits, vegetables, and meat. Furthermore, 43 percent of its over 10,000 residents live below the low income cut-off.

In 2019, the group responsible for Montréal’s experimental initiative Quartier de l’innovation (Qi) came together with Professor Ugo Lachapelle, from the Department of Urban and Tourism Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and Benjamin Docquiere, Master of Urban Studies student, to develop a socially relevant autonomous shuttle bus that would enable Little Burgundy residents to be better connected to food resources.

During a six-month Mitacs research internship, Docquiere worked closely with the community and with food associations to assess their needs. He was dedicated to planning the ideal trajectory for the vehicle, which included stops near grocery stores and community centres that offer food security solutions.

“With this project, we are witnessing an innovative approach in the field of autonomous shuttles: the societal objective of the project is taking precedence. The technological objectives are indeed present, but they are not the only purpose of the project,” says Benjamin, who estimates that 68 percent of Little Burgundy’s area constitutes a food desert. He also had to analyse technical, regulatory, and economic constraints to ensure the efficiency of the route.

Autonomous shuttle buses are sustainable mini-vehicles guided by artificial intelligence. That is, they don’t need a driver. In an article published by the French language newspaper Le Devoir, Benjamin and Ugo explained that such projects are multiplying around the world, but many don’t take the time to actually evaluate their social relevance.

“The strength of the approach undertaken by Qi is to acquire an understanding of individual and community issues which will serve to guide private actors in the implementation of technological experimentation,” they wrote.

An innovation hub

Qi is a 3.5 km² experimental area in the heart of Montréal. According to its Executive Director Damien Silès, its mission is to be a national centre for urban experiences. It creates an ecosystem of innovation that connects public and private sectors, academia, industry, and citizens.

It was the combination of this experimental mindset with a social focus that inspired them to pursue the autonomous bus project. “We want to humanize innovation,” says Damien.

For him, counting on Ugo and Benjamin’s academic expertise was crucial. “We wanted to attract the crème de la crème for this project and Mitacs gave us exactly that!” he says.

He also celebrates that Qi was able to contribute to the intern’s professional development. “Working with Mitacs, we could provide not just an amazing experience but also a jump-start to his career. This is a perfect bridge.”

Benjamin echoes that. Through the project, he was exposed to Montréal’s transportation system and food challenges. In addition, he had the opportunity to expand his network by discussing those issues and meeting with multiple private and public sector representatives.

“The numerous urban, technological, legal, and human constraints didn’t originally make for an ideal project, but the proactivity and resilience implemented by the entire work team gave birth to a project that exceeded our expectations,” says Benjamin. “The most exciting thing about this project is to have managed to define a viable and achievable route that is in the process of being realized.”

His contributions to the initiative include the shuttle’s trajectory, its alternatives, stops, and recommendations for service schedules. As a next step — and as part of his master’s thesis — Benjamin is working to produce an exploratory guide for the implementation of this innovative mode of transport that serves food security.

Now that the initial phase of the project is completed, Qi hopes to plan the inauguration of the route. The shuttle bus, which is manufactured in the United States, has already been ordered and is expected to be delivered after the coronavirus situation eases.

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, Mitacs also receives support from the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, and the Government of Saskatchewan.

Photo: Olli by Local Motors.

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