BlackBerry (TSX:BB) (NASDAQ:BBRY) subsidiary QNX is stepping up its work on autonomous vehicles in Ottawa, announcing Monday morning that it would open a new $100-million “innovation centre” dedicated to developing software for connected and self-driving vehicles.
BlackBerry CEO John Chen and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were at the company’s Kanata facilities this morning to announce the new BlackBerry QNX Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Centre.
Mr. Chen told reporters that the new hub would lead to some 650 new Ottawa-based jobs in the coming years.
In a statement, the company said it would be recruiting software engineers to advance its engineering projects. According to the company, QNX’s current Ottawa presence stands at around 400 people.
“We picked Ottawa because of the skills in our engineering team and we intend to build the centre up and recruit not only a lot of talent and build the next generation of auto technology, but also recruit a lot of partners,” Mr. Chen told reporters.
Mr. Trudeau echoed Mr. Chen’s confidence in the local tech sector, calling the new project “a testament to a deeply entrenched culture of innovation here in our nation’s capital.”
The investment illustrates a significant shift that’s underway at BlackBerry as the firm’s focus shifts away from the mobile handsets and hardware that made it one of Canada’s most recognizable corporate brands. Mr. Chen said BlackBerry is targeting the software security market, wherever security intersects with mobility.
“This is not restricted to cars. Cars happened to be the most receptive part of the market today. We are in the embedded security software business, including QNX. This is going to be much broader than cars, but cars are the beginning of it,” Mr. Chen says. “Everything we do here in Ottawa is part of that.”
Mr. Chen says the company will be “building an ecosystem” by involving its industry partners, such as the University of Waterloo, in the new autonomous vehicle centre. The presence of such organizations is also expected to bolster Ottawa’s tech employment.
The federal government is among those partners, Mr. Chen said, although he declined to comment on any possible financial contributions from taxpayers. He said that the major contribution from the government will be in the form of connections to federal departments and policymakers to allow for the autonomous driving industry to flourish in the country.
QNX is already a leader in the automotive software industry and has developed so-called infotainment systems for major manufacturers including Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Hyundai and Volkswagen.
John Wall, head of QNX, told OBJ after the conference that the company is expecting to launch a new safety-based product in 2017 but that he was unable to provide specific details. Additionally, the firm will release a new foundational software, the operating platform on which its partners will build their autonomous vehicles.
Mr. Wall also anticipates the need for new or expanded space in the coming years as the company’s Ottawa presence grows, but couldn’t speak specifically to their needs or potential moves at this time.
In recent years, QNX has expanded its efforts into the realm of autonomous vehicles. It’s been 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.
Late last month, QNX joined a pilot project overseen by the provincial government to test autonomous vehicles on Ontario's roads.
And, in early November, the company signed an agreement with Ford Motor Co.to beef up how its technology is used to create safe, connected vehicles. The deal was the first to cut out the middleman between BlackBerry and an automaker. Previously, automakers would buy products that use QNX software from other companies.
Shares in BlackBerry, which will release its third-quarter earnings tomorrow, were up 2.37 per cent to $10.35 on the Toronto Stock Exchange in late-afternoon trading.