Once known for the iconic smartphone no mover and shaker was seen without, Blackberry has entered the competition to develop the core software for autonomous vehicles (AVs).
And it has a ringer in the race.
The Waterloo, Ont., tech company is still in the smartphone game, but its work in the automotive sector is both broad and deep thanks to the 2010 purchase of Ottawa-based QNX Software Systems.
Blackberry QNX is running point on the company’s AV strategy, which included news in November it is one of three participants in Ontario’s AV pilot program to test driverless vehicles in the real world.
The WATcar Project at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Automotive Research and the Erwin Hymer Group also have test vehicles in the program.
“We’re really using this as the opportunity to prove out the operating system as being the basis of these (AV) systems and using it to explore and develop various pieces of the software in that environment,” Thomas Bloor, Blackberry QNX automotive business development manager, said in an interview.Blackberry QNX will use a 2017 Lincoln MKZ hybrid to test its operating system and the algorithms, said Bloor.
“The testing regime is going to be testing out the robustness of the system as a whole,” Bloor said. “It’s not just focusing on one part of that.”
Blackberry QNX knows something about integrating diverse functions into seamless operation. Blackberry bought QNX largely for its “microkernel” operating system, used to allow disparate parts of a vehicle’s infotainment system — navigation, mobile phone, radio and media players — to operate without conflicts.
QNX software now runs IVI (in-vehicle infotainment) head units in 60 million vehicles across 40 brands, making it the market leader Blackberry used the QNX operating system as the basis for its Blackberry 10 OS, used in its current handsets. The automotive application, another branch of the root operating system, meets the ASIL D certification standard for road vehicle safety, Bloor said.
The testing program’s objective is to prove the system is capable on Ontario roads under a variety of conditions. The Ontario government’s rules include requiring a licensed driver to be in the driver’s seat during all tests.
Aside from the QNX unit’s ability to integrate operating functions, Blackberry brings another advantage to the project over its competitors: a reputation for robust encryption, essential for AVs amid concerns they are vulnerable to hacking.
“We’re using a lot of the Blackberry security know-how and expertise in our operating system environments,” said Bloor. “It’s one of those things where you make yourself secure by constantly pounding on the software and looking for the flaws yourself.”
Blackberry QNX is not the only company working on AV software. Automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers such as Delphi are developing their own systems as well as non-automotive players such as Google and possibly Apple.
“So absolutely there is a bit of a race going on in terms of these capabilities and who’s developing them and how they’re going to be brought to market,” said Bloor.“Clearly if you’re a big OEM, you’re doing it for your own benefit. If you’re a Tier 1, you want to be able to sell that technology to a number of different OEMs. And some of these new entrants from the world of high tech, it’s not necessarily clear what their business plans are in some of these spaces and how they plan to commercialize these things.”
Bloor would not say which of Blackberry QNX’s automotive clients have an active interest in its AV project.
Ford Motor Co., which in 2014 replaced the bug-prone Microsoft-based MyFord Touch infotainment suite with a QNX-based system, signed a deal in October for expanded use of QNX’s OS and Blackberry security software.
Ford is not a public partner in the Ontario AV program, said Bloor.
“We do have a number of OEM and Tier 1 partners that we’re working with currently,” he said. “Obviously most of those arrangements are kind of confidential and not for public disclosure at this point in time.”