On a plot of land that once served as a stark reminder of how quickly a promising tech sector can go bust, a new facility is paving the way for cutting-edge products that could fundamentally change how residents move about the capital.
The 16-kilometre test track for self-driving cars is located on a 1,866-acre site just off Woodroffe Avenue across from the Nepean Sportsplex. In the early 2000s, the area housed an incubation centre for biotechnology startups, a venture that ultimately became a casualty of the dot-com bust.
Today, the National Capital Region is enjoying a tech resurgence fuelled by a new wave of firms focused on software – including applications for the fast-growing autonomous vehicles sector. The City of Ottawa and its partners at the new test site are betting that self-driving cars will eventually become the norm – and that this region will lead the way in developing the software and sensors needed to ensure those vehicles can navigate their way safely around city streets.
AV and its related applications are just a few examples of how emerging technology is poised to revolutionize life in urban areas, local officials say.
Broadly speaking, “smart city” technology refers to an emerging group of apps, sensors and other electronics that are part of the so-called “Internet of Things” – the network of devices that send and receive data from cars and other infrastructure such as traffic signals and streetlights.
Government officials say smart city technology promises to improve our lives in a myriad of ways, from making traffic on major arteries flow more smoothly to instantly alerting residents when garbage pickup will be delayed by a storm.
“(Municipal governments) have the capability of connecting people with the world around them in ways that no one else can,” says Marc René de Cotret, a former IBM employee who now heads the City of Ottawa’s Smart City 2.0 initiative.
Council approved the Smart City strategy in 2017, mapping out an ambitious plan to make Ottawa a hotbed of autonomous vehicle research while nurturing a new wave of startups that would provide the sensors, software and apps needed to power AV and other cutting-edge tech.
It’s still early days in the process, says René de Cotret, adding his office plans to provide an update on its progress to council’s finance and economic development committee later this year.
But he says the City of Ottawa is indeed getting smarter in its approach to technology, pointing to concrete examples such as the launch of the AV test track and the ongoing effort to replace the municipality’s old sodium and metal halide streetlights with energy-saving LED models that can be individually dimmed or brightened as required.
Phil Landry, the city’s director of traffic services, says the LED program has already proven its worth. Since they first began to be installed two and a half years ago, the high-tech lights have saved city taxpayers $2 million in energy costs, Landry says.
Once all 58,000 streetlights in Ottawa have been converted – expected to be some time next year – the city will start looking at partnering with tech firms on other ways to use sensors in the lights to monitor traffic flows on busy streets, for example.
“With the LED lights, we’re building the foundation so that we can be at the forefront and proactively testing things with industry,” Landry explains. “The last thing you want to do is try something on the road and something doesn’t work.”
So far, much of the Smart City 2.0 rollout has focused on transportation infrastructure.
For example, sensors embedded last year on Innes Road between St. Laurent Boulevard and the Bearbrook Road bypass measure traffic flows and send that data to traffic signals that can be automatically set to stay green longer during periods of heavy travel.
In 2017, the city partnered with Transport Canada, the provincial ministry of transportation and researchers from Carleton University to install software at traffic signals on Hunt Club Road that used GPS technology to alert drivers of selected vehicles such as courier vans when upcoming lights were about to change, giving them more time to slow down. The alerts reduced fuel consumption in those vehicles by up to 15 per cent, Landry says.
The new AV track will offer even more opportunities for the city to work with industry and academic partners to test the latest tech, he adds.
“At the end of the day, we want to be engaged in this because we feel that it’s going to make our roads safer, which is our ultimate goal,” Landry says.
Products that make city roads safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are also driving growth at several local startups.
Stittsville-based SmartCone Technologies has been working with the city since 2017. The 20-person company makes devices equipped with video cameras, motion detectors and other sensors that can be easily installed in traffic cones or set up on their own.
The system flags invisible threats such as seismic activity, dangerous wind speeds and toxic gases in addition to reading licence plates of passing cars and recognizing faces.
The devices can also detect when an intruder or pedestrian wanders into a construction site, for example, and alert trespassers to danger.
The City of Ottawa has installed SmartCones along the O’Connor Street bike path in Centretown to provide more effective signalling to drivers. Flashing lights indicate if drivers should check the bike lanes before crossing O’Connor or turning onto Waverly Street. The cones’ sensors can detect approaching cyclists but are smart enough to avoid activating if pedestrians walk within range or if bikes are heading in the opposite direction.
SmartCone’s made-in-Ottawa tech has also made waves beyond the capital. The company has landed contracts with local governments south of the border, and in February, the firm announced it was partnering with IBM to use the global tech giant’s Watson platform to monitor falls and other incidents at work sites.
“This is our time,” says SmartCone founder and CEO Jason Lee, adding the company is set to install a new version of its devices on O’Connor that track “near-misses” between cyclists and cars.
Meanwhile, René de Cotret’s department is poised to roll out a range of new smart city pilot projects beginning this spring.
Among the first will be an app that will allow city staff to send alerts and notifications directly to users’ smartphones, such as texts to notify them of overnight parking bans or delays in garbage pickup following a snowstorm. René de Cotret says the app could also be a portal for residents to connect with City Hall – say, by allowing users to send photos of graffiti with a link to its location.
The city is also planning to unveil a chatbot on its website by the end of this year that will answer common questions about municipal services. Another pilot project aims to use sensors in streetlights to detect vacant on-street parking spots and notify nearby drivers via their smartphones.
More innovations are coming down the pipe, René de Cotret adds, including plans to use data from smart meters to notify residents when their water consumption has spiked.
“The idea here is trying to connect people with the world around them in a way that’s frictionless, that’s really customized and personalized to your specific circumstances.”