Updated to include videos by Mark Holleron.
A self-driving car made its way down a public street in Kanata on Thursday afternoon – a Canadian first that puts Ottawa in the driver’s seat when it comes to being an autonomous vehicle hub, advocates say.
With Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson in the passenger’s seat, a grey Lincoln sedan powered by BlackBerry QNX technology took a spin around Kanata North with no one’s hands on the wheel, then stopped at a traffic light as hundreds of curious onlookers witnessed the historic scene. A BlackBerry official was in the driver’s seat, as required by provincial law, but he held up his hands to show the crowd the car was indeed steering itself.
The City of Ottawa equipped traffic lights on a stretch of Legget Drive with a short-wave radio system that signalled the vehicle when to stop at a red light, marking the first time in Canada that city infrastructure has been connected to a self-driving car.
BlackBerry QNX senior vice-president John Wall, who rode in the back seat on the historic journey, said Ottawa is the ideal development hub for autonomous vehicles for a variety of reasons, including its wealth of tech talent and a climate that offers all the extreme testing conditions an automaker could want.
“We think it’s the best of both worlds,” he said after the demonstration. “We have the all-weather situation, we have a city that’s committed, we have all the levels of government that are very interested in what we’re doing. Everybody’s supporting us. It’s perfect for us.”
Just before the historic drive, Kanata North BIA executive director Jenna Sudds noted that more than 70 companies and organizations in Ottawa are working on autonomous vehicle applications.
Last December, for example, BlackBerry said it was pouring $100 million into QNX to create an autonomous vehicles innovation centre and add 650 jobs in the region. More recently, automotive manufacturer Ford said earlier this year that it would hire hundreds of BlackBerry employees and spend $337.9 million to create an Ottawa Research and Engineering Centre focused on developing autonomous driving technology.
“This critical mass of expertise and innovation is not replicated anywhere else in Canada,” Ms. Sudds said. “They’re all here for a reason.”
Thursday’s demonstration featured technology from a number of local firms.
BlackBerry QNX software helped the car communicate with the short-wave radio system built by Ottawa firm Codha Wireless. Ottawa-based NovaTel’s GPS system connected to QNX headquarters kept the vehicle on track, while the traffic lights included wireless equipment manufactured by Carp’s Luxcom Technologies. Nokia will be adding its 5G networking expertise to the test route in the next phase.
Chris Cope, an economic development officer with the City of Ottawa, said the region is primed to become a leading force in creating software and other components for autonomous vehicles.
“There’s lots of work to go before we see cars fully autonomous on every street in Ottawa, but we want to make Ottawa the friendliest city for companies working on this project to do the research,” he said.
Mr. Wall said QNX has been testing its autonomous vehicle software in controlled environments for about a month, using cameras, radar, GPS, remote light sensors and other cutting-edge equipment in an effort to ensure the cars react smoothly and safely to their surroundings.
“We’re learning a lot,” he said. “There’s still lots of work to be done, but I’m satisfied with the progress that we’ve been making.”
He said he expects to see luxury cars with almost complete self-driving capability on the market by 2022, adding a range of safety and security issues still need to be solved.
But those vehicles will still look much today’s cars in one key respect, Mr. Wall predicted.
“A car without a steering wheel? I can’t even envision when that is.”
Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay said autonomous driving technology has applications far beyond the automotive industry. Farming implements such as combines, for example, could one day harvest crops without a human operator, he suggested, and Ottawa has the pedigree to be at the forefront of that change.
“I think the potential here is pretty much endless,” Mr. Tremblay said. “We are really, really well positioned. Ford landing here earlier in the year is a direct testament to that. They found us, and it’s because they’re already doing business with companies in the region. A natural extension of that is to come and set up camp because they realize how deep the capability runs. I think this is just the start of something really, really significant for our region.”