Carleton Celebrates First Ride of Autonomous Car

By Dan Rubinstein
Photos by Chris Roussakis

Under the bright October sun, hundreds of people lined the streets of the Kanata North Technology Park as if waiting for a celebrity motorcade to pass.

And in a sense, that’s what they were there to see — except the star attraction was not a Hollywood actor or international leader, but a shiny gray Lincoln MKZ, the first autonomous car to be tested on a Canadian road while communicating with live city infrastructure such as traffic lights and global position system (GPS) base stations.

“Today, we’re taking a big step toward making Ottawa a centre of excellence for autonomous vehicle technology,” said Mayor Jim Watson. A few minutes later he stepped into the car with Kanata North Councillor Marianne Wilkinson and John Wall, senior vice-president and general manager of BlackBerry QNX, for three laps of the on-street test track with nobody’s hands on the wheel.

“It was a very smooth ride — it worked perfectly,” Watson said after getting out of the vehicle, which had stopped at a red light to let its passengers enter. “It’s a very proud moment for the city. This is a historic first, and one of the many disruptive turning points for our economy. This is going to be the way of the future.”

“Many of you may be wondering what we’ve been doing over the last nine months,” said Wall, a Carleton University Engineering graduate whose company opened the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Centre (AVIC) last December and organized the road test with a cluster of partners who are working together to develop Ottawa into a national and global leader in the autonomous vehicle industry.

“Today, getting this car onto the road, is the first public display of the fruits of our labour. This work will benefit our growing ecosystem of collaborations, including the many institutions that are turning out fine Engineering and Computer Science students.”

“As a region, we compete with our capability,” added Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay. “That’s really what this afternoon means to me — it’s an illustration of how this region comes together, and how Ottawa is not limited to communications technology. We have the ability to compete in many areas.”

Competing in Many Areas

Earlier this year, Ontario became the first province to set a regulatory framework to permit testing of self-driving vehicles.

The test track for Thursday’s demo loops around Canada’s largest tech park, which is home to more than 500 companies and employs about 21,000 people — many of whom came outside to watch the car in action.

The route was equipped with the latest GPS and telecommunications technology from BlackBerry QNX and other local contributors, including NovAtel, Luxcom and Codha Wireless.

Tests like this will enable the collection, management and analysis of data from the vehicle and city infrastructure, and allow the municipality to put this information to work in beneficial ways on city roads.

But long before any rubber hits the road, research is required to ensure that these new technologies are safe and secure. That’s where Carleton’s expertise comes into the picture; researchers are looking at connected cars and next generation wireless systems, sensors and real-time data analytics, software engineering and artificial intelligence.

Across the university, more than 125 researchers from four faculties are actively engaged in a wide range of projects that can help BlackBerry QNX and partners such as the City of Ottawa, the Kanata North Business Association and Invest Ottawa — as well as about 70 other local companies — put the city on the international autonomous vehicle map.

Protecting Autonomous Vehicles from Cyber-Attacks

On the same day as the road test, Carleton announced that one of its leading researchers in this area, Richard Yu, a professor in the School of Information Technology, had secured funding from the Canadian Safety and Security Program totalling $974,000 over three years for his work on securing new connected and autonomous vehicles.

Connected and autonomous vehicles have the potential to enhance transportation efficiency, reducing accidents and traffic congestion. However, as with most cutting-edge technologies, there comes an associated risk of cyber-attacks.

Yu’s project aims to identify and analyze the risks and vulnerabilities associated with potential cyber-attacks against connected and autonomous vehicles, and to develop advanced security solutions to tackle this threat. This research partnership with Transport Canada and Blackberry QNX will contribute to designing software that will make these vehicles more secure, safe and efficient.

“Carleton has always prioritized innovation and excellence in academic research,” Carleton President Alastair Summerlee said in a release. “This announcement acknowledges this commitment. This project will advance Canada’s expertise in security for connected and autonomous vehicles and will support future growth in this emerging field.”

“Connected and automated vehicles have the potential to improve road safety, reduce congestion, protect the environment and support economic opportunities for Canadian workers and businesses,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau. “That is why our government is supporting projects such as this one to prepare Canada to safely and effectively deploy cutting-edge technologies.”

“The research we do here at Carleton on fully autonomous vehicles will lead to the introduction of more efficient active safety features that will improve road safety,” said Carleton Vice-President (Research and International) Rafik Goubran. “Additionally, increasing the automation level in vehicles will extend the number of years of driving for older drivers, assisting with their mobility and social engagement. It will also increase accessibility for all persons.”

“This funding builds on the strengths of my research on wireless security,” said Yu, “and enables this important research to look strategically towards the future.”