Feature: QNX in the driver's seat

John Wall

The autonomous driving industry is revving up, and Ottawa seems primed to lead the pack.

QNX Software Systems is the leader of the city’s automotive software industry. The developer of automobile clusters, telematics and infotainment OS became a BlackBerry subsidiary in 2010 and now acts as the Waterloo giant’s automotive arm. QNX reached a milestone this summer with its acoustics software shipping in more than 50 million systems across 20 automakers, and the release of a new platform for instrument clusters.

This success hasn’t gone unnoticed in the industry. Apple recently picked up Dan Dodge, the founder and former CEO of QNX, with speculation that he will be part of the company’s own autonomous drive ambitions. “Project Titan,” as the top-secret initiative has been dubbed, has led Apple to establish a Kanata presence across from QNX.

The next 10 years will be pivotal for the future of autonomous drive. A report from KPMG earlier this year stated the auto industry was primed for the self-driving revolution. “Everything, from how we move goods to how we move ourselves around, is ripe for change,” it read.

And QNX wants to drive that change.

SETTING THE PACE

“We see the role of QNX as providing a safe and secure platform and all the necessary plumbing to connect these systems together,” says John Wall, vice-president of engineering and services.

The systems, he says, need to come together to form a world of self-driving cars.

To move independently of a driver’s control, cars will need to understand the world around them. To this end, QNX is developing object recognition technology so that a car can read a stop sign, for example, or recognize an adjacent lane. On top of that, the company looks to enable cars to actually communicate with driving infrastructure, and even with other cars (collectively, V2X).

ROADBLOCKS

Cars need to talk to each other to avoid collisions. Makes sense, right? Well, there’s a bit of a snag, says Wall.

“I think probably the largest challenge is, how do you make sure all the vehicles and the infrastructures are speaking the same language? This is what might take time to implement.”

KPMG identified another hurdle in its report: you’re not getting into a self-driving car until you’re 100 per cent sure it’s not going to drive off a cliff.

There will most certainly be early adopters when autonomous drive is ready for public streets, but QNX recognizes consumer hesitance in handing over total control of the car. Malfunctions aside, an insecure OS could open the door to the hacking of self-driving cars. (You wouldn’t want to be David Hasselhoff if KITT from Knight Rider suddenly went rogue.)

FINDING AN OPENING

On the other hand, that’s also where Wall sees the opportunity to establish QNX as an industry leader. Wall knows that safety and security of the self-driving car will be paramount, but he is adamant that QNX can become the OS of the autonomous vehicle. He sees its platform as the steadfast “glue” in the car that will connect autonomous drive systems from a variety of developers.

KPMG also found the eventual adoption of autonomous drive would dramatically reduce accidents, predicting that nearly 80 per cent of crashes could be mitigated with controlled-vehicle technology. That’s thousands of lives (and billions of dollars) saved.

SLOW – BUT CONSTANT – ACCELERATION

Wall suggests that autonomous driving won’t happen all at once. He sees semi-autonomous, or assisted, driving as the transitional step that will win over drivers.

Technologies such as park assist and blind spot monitoring, already featured in many vehicles, can help to build consumer confidence. Phasing in smart sensors that can help you to make a lane change safely, for example, is the kind of baby step that can make a driver more comfortable with eventually taking their hands off the wheel entirely.

“I think it’s going to be gradual. I really see a large timeframe where you’re going to have assisted driving that’s going to, every year, year over year, improve the safety of the vehicle before people start watching TV in the car,” says Wall.

QNX is focused on developing this transition with its “glass cockpit” concept. Sitting in the front seat, a driver should have a clear view of the car’s instrument cluster and infotainment system. This means you can assess speed, upcoming navigation commands, communicate distraction-free with the back seat, and more – all this without ever taking your eyes off the road.

DRIVING LOCAL ROADS

Wall is glad his team is taking on this ambitious work in Ottawa. While QNX has arms all over the world, having headquarters in Canada’s capital has meant access to a pool of talent from some of the best software companies in the world.

“From a software talent base, I don’t know that I’ve seen a place that’s much better than Ottawa.”

Whether it’s led by an established leader in QNX, or a sudden push from a California juggernaut, it seems the road to autonomous driving runs through Ottawa.