With the Ottawa L5 test facilities launching today, we sat down with Grant Courville, VP of BlackBerry QNX to learn more about BlackBerry’s role in the new AV testing property that will be a perfect playground to trial some of the next-generation technologies that his team has been working on.
Q: How did BlackBerry come to be involved in the Ottawa L5 test track?
Grant: To provide some context, we (BlackBerry) were one of the first companies to be selected as part of the Ontario government’s pilot program for autonomous vehicle testing after it was launched in January 2016. With respect to Ottawa, once we had been named as one of the few companies that could do AV testing, we immediately started working with the city to help define a public test track, which ended up becoming the one outside our building in the Kanata North Tech Park.
At that location in October 2017 we conducted the first on-street test drive in Canada of an autonomous vehicle communicating with live city infrastructure. We estimated that around 4,000 people came out to witness this milestone so the level of interest really surpassed our expectations.
In parallel we were also working with the City of Ottawa to help define what a private test track could look like. Once the city identified a location, we went out there with a few of the other companies that were involved and specified the features that we wanted to see on-site to help round out what it would ultimately look like. – ie: we want a traffic light here, a roundabout here, an on ramp here, a railway crossing, stop signs, yield signs, parking areas, etc.
Q: What has it been like to work with the city of Ottawa on the project?
Grant: We’ve been extremely pleased to see the city invest and act so quickly, and to be honest, we thought it would take a lot longer. Once the consortium of partners defined what they were looking for, the city had trucks on the roads painting lines and contractors installing traffic lights in record time. For us, that really showed how serious the city was about attracting investment and attracting companies and people to Ottawa to perform all sorts of AV tests. We’re fully behind attracting as many companies and as much investment in Ottawa as we can and the Ottawa L5 test track is going to be a key point of that moving forwards.
Q: What does the Ottawa L5 look like?
Grant: The Ottawa L5 test facilities are housed on the 1,866-acre National Capital Commission Greenbelt Research Farm in Ottawa and boast 16-kilometres of private roadway that are currently being outfitted with some of the latest communications technology.
The site is set up like a miniature city, complete with buildings, pavement markings, traffic lights, stop signs, pedestrian crosswalks and intersections. The test track will enable participants to test communications such as DSRC, GPS-RTK, LTE/4G, Wi-Fi and 5G – all in the same location.
Q: What sorts of tests does the Ottawa L5 allow you to do that you couldn’t do on public roads?
Grant: What the new site now allows us to do is perform more advanced tests in a lower-risk environment where we don’t have to worry about pedestrians and cyclists which is obviously not the case when we’re out testing on city streets. It also gives us and others the ability to test things like wireless networking technologies, advanced sensors, car-to-car and car to infrastructure communications and even first responder emergency scenarios.
We also like to remind people that we have some pretty extreme weather in Ottawa and when that rain or snowstorm hits, we still plan to be out there at the Ottawa L5 with our cars, loaded with our software technologies, doing tests. When it comes to extreme weather, or heck, even precipitation in general, AVs still aren’t at the point where they are as safe or as good are as human drivers. A lot of the tests we’re going to be doing focus on those weather related scenarios to find out how certain pieces of technology or sensors are going to work with our software in those types of environments. We then use these tests to refine the safe and secure software that we ultimately provide to the automakers and our Tier 1 customers.
Q. Why does Ottawa seem to be such a hotbed of automotive innovation?
Grant: One of the great things about being located in Ottawa is that within a relatively small geography you’ve got an extremely vibrant ecosystem of cutting-edge tech companies and a government that is committed to fostering collaboration with the end goal of establishing Canada – and the country’s capital region more specifically – as a global leader in cybersecurity and automotive software for connected and autonomous vehicles.
In Ottawa you’ve got this intersection of industry leaders in cellular communication and networking that are making major strides in technologies like 5G (Ericsson and Nokia) and ourselves (industry leaders in safe and secure automotive technologies and software).
With both of us being in such close proximity to one another and having Ottawa L5, a state of the art test track right in our own backyard we can now go from white board idea, to design, to implementation, to putting that idea out on the test track in a relatively short time frame. We’ll even have 5G antennas at the track to facilitate various sorts of 5G testing.
Q: When can we expect self-driving cars to be commonplace on our roads and in cities?
Grant: Getting to full Level 5 autonomy – where an autonomous driven vehicle can take you and your passengers anywhere, anytime and anyplace – is not right around the corner and it’s going to take some time to get there. Likely decades. Solving the really hard problems like how a car operates in extreme weather scenarios or unfamiliar situations is going to take quite a while so I don’t anticipate that we’re going to see autonomous vehicles in every driveway anytime soon. Test tracks like the Ottawa L5 and others that we’re involved in provide an ideal environment to help us and the industry as a whole get to the root of some of these challenging problems.
Q: What else will are you doing in Canada in the automotive realm?
Grant: This past September we launched an accelerator program with L-SPARK, Canada’s largest Software as a Service (SaaS) accelerator, to help small and medium-sized technology enterprises grow their businesses and bring new products to market using BlackBerry QNX technology. We ultimately selected half a dozen companies for the program and over the past few months we’ve been helping them to, among other things, understand the latest automotive technologies and develop product prototypes. We’re quite excited to help some of these innovative startups deploy their solutions at the track. For instance, one of the companies that we’re working with – Soltare – has a connected car product that lets you detect where a first responder siren is coming from.
Also this past Fall, we announced a new Security Credential Management System (SCMS) service which provides the mechanism for vehicles and infrastructure, such as traffic lights, to exchange information in a trustworthy and private manner using digital certificates. The SCMS service is based on BlackBerry’s Certicom technology and as part of that announcement we also said that we would offer it with no service fees to automakers and public offices involved in smart city and connected vehicle pilots.
The first organization to take us up on this offer was Invest Ottawa, the organization behind the Ottawa L5 and we’ll be using the site to test and demonstrate how our SCMS service can be used in a variety of V2X applications.
As for other initiatives that are planned, in February, the Government of Canada announced an investment of $40 million in BlackBerry to help us develop safe and secure software systems for the next generation of connected and autonomous vehicles. To work on the groundbreaking program, over the next five years, BlackBerry will hire more than 1,800 of the best and brightest engineers, scientists, and other highly-skilled individuals from Canada and around the world. With this funding, these new hires will help us to continue to develop the transformative automotive technologies that will help drive our future.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Grant: Ultimately, the Ottawa L5 test facilities will enable us to accelerate our AV testing and innovation to develop safe and secure autonomous vehicle technologies. Having the ability to do four season testing in all weather conditions within a miniature city environment is absolutely critical to the development, commercialization and adoption of new AV technologies. With the Ottawa L5, BlackBerry will be able to push the limits of our technology in a safe, controlled environment and further refine our broad portfolio of automotive software solutions.
Visit us online to learn more about BlackBerry’s work in the automotive industry, and watch the video below to see Ottawa's Autonomous Vehicle Demonstration featuring BlackBerry QNX.