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Stratford, Ont., set to become research hub for self-driving vehicles

Stratford, Ont., set to become research hub for self-driving vehicles

GREG KEENAN
AUTO INDUSTRY REPORTER
Globe and Mail

Stratford, Ont., is poised to receive a big boost as a key research centre for developing self-driving vehicles.

The Ontario government is set to announce on Wednesday that the city, which is home to the internationally renowned Shakespearean festival, will receive a large chunk of research money that will be used to test autonomous vehicles systems.

The entire city of Stratford will effectively be turned into a test bed to study communications between vehicles and vehicle-to-infrastructure links as the Ontario government reveals how it will spend some of the $80-million it set aside in its budget earlier this year to make sure the province is front and centre in developing the car of the future.

“The auto sector is in a full-fledged state of technological disruption,” said Brad Duguid, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development and Growth. “For Ontario to maintain its position as a dominant player in auto, we need to lead in the development of autonomous and connected vehicles.”

The province is positioning itself to be a global leader with investments in artificial intelligence, the Stratford project and existing strengths in connected vehicles, Mr. Duguid said.

The spending includes $5-million on an Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association of Canada project that the organization pitched to the government two years ago, as well as $30-million that will be made available to companies that will use Stratford to test technologies and systems for connected and autonomous vehicles, sources briefed on the province’s plans said.

There is expected to be money for projects in Ottawa, Windsor and Toronto as part of the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network.

Stratford is “this perfect microcosm” in part because it has a secure, city-wide wireless network, said Ross McKenzie, managing director of the University of Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research.

“In order to get to highly automated vehicles, which will ultimately give us fully autonomous vehicles, those vehicles have to be fully connected,” he said. “They have to be capable of vehicle-to-vehicle communication, they have to be capable of vehicle-to-infrastructure communication and ultimately vehicle to cloud.”

Companies want to test vehicles and technologies with WiFi as opposed to direct, short-range communication (DSRC), he said, which is how vehicles with transponders that use Ontario’s Highway 407 privately owned toll highway connect with the highway infrastructure.

“It’s a real-world environment because they have a bus fleet, they have a bunch of hydro trucks, they have citizenry going around doing their thing all in the confines of an area that has ubiquitous WiFi,” he said.

Stratford is expected to make the vehicles in its transit and hydro systems available to auto makers and auto-parts companies that want to test components in real-world situations rather than solely on prototype vehicles in controlled situations.

A company could, for example, test a LiDAR (light detection and ranging system) on a single vehicle or a fleet of vehicles.

The city isn’t quite ready to allow fully autonomous vehicles on public roads, but Stratford is also home to a separate 1.7-hectare site where such vehicles can be tested, including a Lincoln MKZ sedan that Renesas Electronics America Co. is using to test computer chips.

That vehicle was tested in the parking lots of the Shakespeare Festival last winter but the new self-contained site has been available for testing since mid-September.

Stratford’s location in Ontario’s snow belt also makes it attractive to auto makers and parts companies that want to assess how weather affects the technologies they are developing for autonomous vehicles.

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