The City of Stratford is looking to take centre stage as a testing ground for self-driving and connected vehicles. Its hydro utility and the Automobile Parts Manufacturer’s Association of Canada hope to start playing this key role in developing the latest automotive technology by early fall.
Festival Hydro’s extensive Wi-Fi network, which includes free zones throughout the downtown, the large number of auto and electronics manufacturers in the area, and the city’s proximity to the University of Waterloo make Stratford a leading choice.
“Many people have asked me: ‘Why Stratford?'” says Flavio Volpe, president of the Automobile Parts Manufacturer’s Association.
“The key answer is leadership — you have a mayor and municipal council who decided years ago they were going to invest in city-wide Wi-Fi.”
The city-wide Internet coverage means all connected vehicles tested in Stratford would be operating on one Wi-Fi network. That is essential for controlling the tests and comparing the data.
Connected vehicles have wireless links to the Internet for everything from maps and navigation devices, cameras to monitor the movements of nearby vehicles, sensors to detect black ice, and video streaming on mobile devices for passengers. Autonomous vehicles are packed with cameras, sensors, artificial intelligence and other sophisticated software so they can drive themselves.
Both connected and self-driving vehicles interact with smart infrastructure under the roads and around the streets, including sensors, cameras, routers and repeaters. All of this technology needs extensive testing in all kinds of weather so governments can develop regulations and the industry can set standards.
The auto parts association and the city are applying for support from the province’s Connected Car/Automated Vehicle program, which provides funding for projects aimed at commercializing connected and autonomous vehicle technology.
The parts association outfitted a Cambridge-built Lexus RX350 sport utility vehicle with the latest in connected technology. About 40 companies participated. But there is only so much room on a single vehicle for new technology, and more companies want to participate.
The association took the vehicle to Silicon Valley for meetings with equipment manufacturers and potential customers. When they asked for adjustments in the vehicle’s technology, it had to be returned to Toronto for tweaking.
“It is inefficient, particularly if you are trying to make a sale,” Volpe said.
A testing hub in Stratford using several vehicles will allow more companies and more technology into the program. And prospective customers would come to Stratford to see the latest technology in action, so the parts association no longer would have to take its demonstration vehicle across the continent on sales calls.
The testing hub would produce huge amounts of data that could be mined by software developers writing programs for driverless vehicles.
There is potential for significant economic spinoffs, according to Volpe. “If we create this anchor demonstration hub and we have people coming to Stratford to take a look at it, they are going to buy from Ontario companies, and perhaps put their feet down in Stratford and the outlying area,” he said.
Volpe is working closely with Stratford’s economic development department, known as investStratford. The city has 4,700 jobs in advanced manufacturing and 60 per cent of those are in auto parts. Stratford also is home to the University of Waterloo’s digital media campus.
David Paterson, senior-vice president for corporate and environmental affairs at General Motors Canada, said now is a good time for Stratford to become a testing ground for connected and autonomous vehicles.
“Nobody owns this space,” he said.
GM Canada was given the mandate to equip one of its electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt, with technology that transforms it into a driverless car that can be summoned through a smartphone app. The vehicle initially will be tested at GM’s facility in Warren, Mich.
How the car interacts with the smart infrastructure around it and with other connected cars on the road needs to be tested in real-world conditions, Patterson said.
Wireless carriers need to be engaged to ensure their networks can handle the huge amounts of data that will be generated, he said. Companies with a deep understanding of big data and analytics, also will be needed to help store and analyze that data.
“But that will take new partnerships,” Paterson said. “And that’s where it gets exciting because you are bringing together businesses and industries that did not coexist before. Stratford can be one or all of those things, depending on the partners they can develop.”