What Ford’s high-tech investment means for Ottawa

Ford

Analysts say Ford’s decision to hire hundreds of former BlackBerry employees and set up shop in Ottawa will lead to more business for the QNX division and bolster the city’s credentials as an autonomous vehicles hub.

The Michigan-based auto giant announced last Thursday that it would spend $337.9 million to create an Ottawa Research and Engineering Centre focused on developing autonomous driving technology.

As part of this investment and through its partnership with BlackBerry, the Waterloo-based software company transferred 300 of its Ottawa employees to Ford. Many of the transferred employees were part of BlackBerry’s handset team, a now-discontinued product division.

While some of those employees are suing their former employer over the transfer, BlackBerry says the transfer is a “win-win” for both companies.

“The move enables us to focus all our resources on the new strategy… The BlackBerry QNX engineers continue to develop core technology for the automotive industry. This transfer allows Ford to double its connectivity engineering workforce and accelerate its efforts to build in-house solutions,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email.

Mutually beneficial

Roger Lanctot of Strategy Analytics says Ford’s investment in Ottawa and its acquisition of BlackBerry employees is a clear sign of its commitment to the QNX platform.

“Ford is basically getting into the QNX business,” he says.

The automotive company has installed QNX’s operating system in Ford’s SYNC3 technology, which provides drivers with a heads-up display of the car’s various apps. Before transitioning to QNX, Ford used Microsoft Windows as the provider for its SYNC system.

"Ford is basically getting into the QNX business"

Mr. Lanctot says Ford’s decision to bring former BlackBerry engineers on board shows a commitment to the company’s software, and the need to have in-house support for the next generations of SYNC.

Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive, says investments of this scale are more and more common from automotive companies as capturing the emerging autonomous drive market becomes increasingly crucial.

Both Mr. Lanctot and Mr. Carlson agree that companies like GM and Ford are putting their money in BlackBerry QNX because of the company’s track record.

“The pedigree of BlackBerry QNX is safety and security,” Mr. Lanctot says.

From early days of BlackBerry’s handsets, the company sold itself on being a secure platform for messaging. As concerns about cybersecurity in connected cars arise, the QNX division now seeks to pivot to provide a secure operating system capable of providing the heads-up display but also able to securely connect instrument clusters.

“If there’s anything that has endured with that brand, it’s security. And obviously security is a big challenge in the automotive industry.”

Adds Mr. Carlson, “There is expertise to be found there.”

Building a hub

Though the net jobs added to Ottawa following this investment may end up being relatively few, observers are encouraged by how the move impacts the city’s automotive reputation.

Reflecting on Ford’s investment, as well as the the success of BlackBerry QNX and Apple’s decision to open an office in the city, Egil Juliussen of IHS Automotive says the talent market for is increasingly attractive to the industry.

“Ottawa (has) become a fairly strong centre for software development and moving into autonomous driving,” he says.

Barrie Kirk, executive director for the Ottawa-based Canadian Autonomous Vehicles Centre of Excellence, says the Ford move will help spur momentum to create a hub for autonomous vehicles in Ottawa.

As a long-time Ottawan, Mr. Kirk compares the climate today to the late 1960s, when the city was first sowing the seeds of the telecom boom with companies such as Northern Electric and the Communications Research Centre fueling each other’s success.

“Most of the high tech sector in Kanata goes back to those early roots and the synergy those two organizations had,” he says. “Once you get critical mass here, other people come here for that synergy.”

Mr. Kirk says he’s encouraged by the level of support shown from the federal and Ontario governments in building Ottawa’s autonomous vehicles sector, as well as from private sector. As one of the organizers of the Kanata North Business Association’s Autonomous Vehicles Summit in January, he says he was expecting 100 attendees but was pleased to find nearly 200 interested to know more about developments in the city’s autonomous driving sector.