BlackBerry QNX puts automotive spotlight on Ottawa

BlackBerry QNX
Mike Shane, left and David van Geyn are members of BlackBerry QNX's development team who brought the company's autonomous vehicle to the Discover TechNata career fair last week. (Photo by Rebecca Atkinson)

While most auto shows make a spectacle of expensive cars and sleek designs, Ottawa’s Autonomous Vehicle Summit on Wednesday puts the focus on the software and infrastructure inside and outside the car.

Taking centre stage in the city’s autonomous vehicle development is BlackBerry, as the firm’s QNX division in Kanata attempts to pull ahead of the pack as a leader in the automotive software industry.

“It’s a rebirth of the automobile,” says Grant Courville, BlackBerry QNX’s head of product management for embedded and autonomous systems.

“The brains – the electronics and software in the car are completely being rearchitected, and we’re completely at the heart of it.”

Ever since BlackBerry CEO John Chen announced a $100-million investment in the firm’s Kanata outpost to establish an AV innovation centre in late 2016, the firm has made strides not only in establishing its own stake in the $7-trillion-dollar mobility-as-a-service industry, but in building the reputation of Ottawa as an AV hub.

Autowa

Courville says BlackBerry’s decision to establish an innovation centre for AV development in Kanata has turned the area into a beacon for opportunities in the sector. Large multinationals, startups and academic institutions have all been coming to QNX in the past year to see how they can get involved in the industry.

Carleton University even had 20 or so of its professors recently come to the Kanata garage to understand how they could better align their curricula with industry need.

Other companies in the city, such as those from the aerospace and electronics fields, are also reaching out to see how they can be involved either directly or in adjacent opportunities as connected cars slowly enter the mainstream.

Courville says this level of engagement is a result of increased AV awareness, not only for BlackBerry and Ottawa, but for Ontario and Canada as well. Observers and industry players knew development was happening in Europe and parts of Asia and the United States, but Canada wasn’t on the radar until now.

“It’s not that there wasn’t anything going on, because there was, but the rest of the world wasn’t aware.”

That’s led to an influx of talent knocking on QNX’s garage door. As attractive as the muscle cars and hot rods of auto shows have been in the past, software is the new sexy in the automotive industry.

“We always ask the classic interview question, ‘What prompted you to apply or why are you interested in working here,’ and the answers we’re now getting is, ‘Well you guys are working on the coolest stuff in automotive,’” Courville says.

Critical systems

BlackBerry has translated that brand into a few successful deals in recent months. The firm most recently announced a new deal with Jaguar Land Rover, which joins Ford Motors as another high-profile automaker employing the QNX platform.

Chinese search engine Baidu, NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Delphi are among the tier-1 suppliers that have tapped BlackBerry to power their automotive platforms.

These aren’t just one-off contracts, Courville says. The long-term thinking that goes into choosing an operating system isn’t reversed year-to-year or model-to-model.

Grant Courville
Grant Courville is BlackBerry QNX’s head of product management for embedded and autonomous systems.

“Operating system decisions are foundational,” he says. “They’re betting their future systems, and their platforms, on BlackBerry QNX technologies.”

BlackBerry’s betting its future on QNX technology and the automotive industry, too. Chen told analysts and investors on the firm’s quarterly earnings call last week that the autonomous car market is currently a small slice of the firm’s revenue but an important part of its future.

The firm faces competition in the market from Linux-based developers such as Kanata neighbour Wind River, but Chen said the firm’s “strategy is working” and expressed confidence in taking a sizeable market share.

Work done in the Waterloo firm’s Kanata outpost has begun to integrate with the rest of BlackBerry. That’s exemplified by Jarvis, a product the firm unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Jarvis provides automakers with a comprehensive view of a vehicle’s source code, identifying potential insecurities. With the product, BlackBerry brings its history in security to its future in automotive.

“I think it aligns perfectly,” Courville says.

Long road ahead

Intel and analyst firm Strategy Analytics have pegged the value of the “mobility-as-a-service” industry as high as $7 trillion by 2050. This includes a passenger economy, driven by companies such as Uber that are hoping to utilize a fleet of driverless, autonomous cars to transport users throughout city streets.

Before getting there, our cars and infrastructure will need to allow for fully autonomous, pilotless vehicles.

BlackBerry took a step towards this future last year with a public test of a fully-autonomous vehicle in Kanata. Hundreds of onlookers stood by as a vehicle outfitted with QNX technology was able to communicate with City of Ottawa infrastructure as it drove down Legget Drive, a milestone for the company and the first on-road AV test in Canada.

But Courville says that future is at least 15 to 20 years out, and wants to keep BlackBerry away from the “hype machine.”

“We’re not rushing into this at all. There’s too much at stake,” he says.

That became clear last month when a pedestrian in Arizona was struck and killed by one of Uber’s self-driving cars, despite having a safety driver behind the wheel. A few companies and municipalities have since halted on-road AV tests.

None of BlackBerry’s technology was in that car, and Courville says the accident hasn’t affected development. The firm’s on-road test in Kanata last year was done on a closed-off road and Chen said on the recent earnings call that it’ll be at least a year until the firm is ready for a truly public test.

Courville believes the slow-and-steady approach is necessary to realize an autonomous driving future.

“If we lose consumer confidence, that will set things back. That will slow things down,” he says. “It’s going to be gradual, it’s going to be evolutionary, and that’s exactly the way it has to be.”

Developing the in-car technology is one thing, but the infrastructure investments needed to put autonomous vehicles on Canadian streets are the other side of the coin. Courville and John Wall, the head of the QNX, were on Parliament Hill just last week talking to a federal government committee about where they should be investing to keep the country on the cutting edge of AV.

Courville says he’s been pleased with the attitude from the feds, as public servants seem genuinely interested in what they can do to prepare for the transformative industry.

The opportunities and obstacles on the long road towards AV will be the first discussion at this week’s summit in Kanata, which will also cover policies and urban planning topics.