Canada’s BlackBerry to open autonomous vehicle hub

Silicon Valley, QNX's industrial-focused software, Apple, Samsung, , Waterloo, Justin Trudeau, BlackBerry Ltd, driving research center,
Silicon Valley, QNX's industrial-focused software, Apple, Samsung, , Waterloo, Justin Trudeau, BlackBerry Ltd, driving research center,

Canada’s Tech aggregate BlackBerry Ltd (BB.TO) will inaugurate an autonomous driving research center on Monday, as it seeks to make itself a necessary under-the-hood part of the automotive business weaponry in the self-driving vehicle arms race.

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau will attend the launch by the Waterloo, Ontario-based smartphone guide.

Blackberry, globally recognised for its phones but now staking its future on the more productive business of creating software and operating mobile devices after largely ceding the smartphone business to the likes of Apple and Samsung, is developing secondary QNX’s Ottawa facility to concentrate on producing high-level driver assistance and autonomous vehicle technology.

After a detour where QNX’s industrial-focused software was used to reinvent the now-discarded BlackBerry phone operating system, BlackBerry is centred on how its embedded software interacts with the explosion of sensors, cameras and other elements required for a car to drive itself.

But while Silicon Valley has invested heavily in the artificial intelligence and machine learning required for autonomy, more financially constrained BlackBerry has not, eyeing instead a niche role as a trusty sidekick.

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“What QNX is doing is providing the infrastructure that allows you to build higher-level algorithms and to also acquire data from the sensors in a reliable manner,” said Sebastian Fischmeister, a University of Waterloo associate professor who has worked with QNX since 2009.

“Our play in this is that we provide the software foundation for these high-performance compute platforms,” QNX head John Wall said in an interview.

BlackBerry and the university’s research units got the green light to test Ford Motor Co (F.N) Lincoln vehicles with autonomous features on Ontario’s public roads late last month. The firm has also signed a deal to work directly with the Detroit-based carmaker as it works to get fleets of robot ride-sharing vehicles to market by 2021.

Wall said the organisation is in advanced discussions with “more than one or two” other major global automakers about similar partnerships but also cautioned that the hype of robot cars would take a long time to be fully realised.

QNX already powers infotainment in millions of cars, giving an alternative to automakers watching the speed at which companies such as Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA.O), ride-hailing company Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL], and Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google have advanced their self-driving projects.

“If they can prove that they have the whole package and the security, they could absolutely dominate the market” for autonomous vehicle operating systems, said Sam Fiorani, an analyst at Auto Forecast Solutions.

Risks continue, added with the challenge from chipmakers such as Intel Corp (INTC.O) who, eyeing demand for their processors in future robot cars, could discount or give away their own security and safety software in order to trade more tools.

“Some of these companies can afford to lose a lot of money in their pursuit of adoption and market share,” said Chris Rommel, who leads embedded technology research at VDC Research.

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