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Q&A: Here’s why global auto OEMs are choosing Waterloo to innovate

Q&A with Ross McKenzie, managing director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR), about the Waterloo autotech ecosystem.

The automotive sector, a major of driver of economic prosperity in North American communities, has been evolving with technological change ever since the first mass produced cars came off the assembly lines in the early 20th century.

But now, the pace and the type of change is nothing short of revolutionary.

A new generation of lightweight, intelligent and increasingly autonomous vehicles powered by clean energy is transforming not just the industry, but society itself. Today’s connected and tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles are driving growth of Mobility-as-a-Service* (MaaS), a viable alternative to privately owning cars.Ross McKenzie, managing director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR)

In addition, the growing number of electric vehicles is bringing changes to our energy infrastructure.

Waterloo is playing a big role in generating this tsunami of change.

The technological expertise coming out of the University of Waterloo has enabled this region to become an important hub of innovation for the automotive and emerging mobility sectors.

Waterloo is now home to more than 80 autotech businesses, from global manufacturers such as Toyota and Ford, to parts suppliers and tech startups that are developing artificial intelligence, better batteries and novel lightweight materials for the vehicles of tomorrow.

We recently interviewed Ross McKenzie, managing director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR), about the growth of the autotech ecosystem in Waterloo and how it helps automotive companies grow and innovate:

Q: How did Waterloo become such an important centre for automotive research?

MCKENZIE: One big factor is that the University of Waterloo, home to the largest engineering school in the country, has more than 125 faculty members doing research in the transportation space, the largest group of its kind in Canada and top three in North America.

The university offers a wide array of engineering degree programs that fill traditional automotive needs – like mechanical and electrical engineering – but we also have programs that train the type of specialists that automotive companies increasingly covet, such as mechatronics and software engineers. We have professors doing research across many key vehicle segments and when we pooled all of this expertise together, WatCAR was born.

Q: Why did this happen here, rather than Detroit or Windsor?

MCKENZIE:  Waterloo has emerged as an autotech hub because of the breadth and depth of companies in both the automotive and information technology.

WatCAR is in the middle of this perfect storm. The University of Waterloo is home to the largest concentration of computer science researchers in Canada, who are part of the largest mathematics faculty in the world, which is an ideal complement to our engineering school.

We are also a catalyst for companies such as Miovision that have grown into a major player in the vehicle and infrastructure connectivity space of intelligent transportation systems.

We host the annual AutoTech Symposium with various partners in the community. That is happening on Oct. 16 this year. The day-long event is held here because there is an ever increasing amount of technology coming into the vehicle and Waterloo companies and scholars are active in many of them, such as onboard computing, 5G capable Wi-Fi, next generation sensors, and more.

Geographically, we are ideally situated within the automotive corridor that runs from Toronto to Detroit, at the half-way point. And, of course, Waterloo has an international reputation as a tech hub, with strengths in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and software-as-a-service, all of which are very relevant to the automotive industry.

 Q: What does WatCAR do?

MCKENZIE: WatCAR is an umbrella over everything related to automotive and mobility on the University of Waterloo campus.

This activity is led by our professors who undertake advanced research. We also profile graduate students within specific labs who work on automotive and mobility applications related to their studies, such autonomous driving or embedded software. We have undergraduate students who participate on 15 mobility-based competition teams, such as solar-powered cars, connected vehicles and automated driving. We also offer the world’s largest co-operative education program, with undergraduate students available year-round who are hired on work terms in the automotive sector.

These are all pieces that the sector needs, and WatCAR is the first point of entry, the portal, to anything automotive and mobility relevant at the university. Industry partners engage with us, and if we have expertise that can help, we do. If we can’t, we do our best to direct them to someone who can.

Q:  What types of partnerships do you have in the auto sector?

MCKENZIE: We have partnerships across the entire automotive supply chain. We have active ongoing research projects with eight OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) on campus, but also with the Tier 1 auto suppliers including Magna and Linamar, Tier 2 suppliers who provide the component sub-systems, as well as the new and emerging companies that are developing technology, such as improving the LiDAR (laser-based sensing technology) systems in autonomous cars.

Q: Can you provide an example of an auto sector research partnership happening at the University of Waterloo?

MCKENZIE: One example involves lightweighting the B Pillar, which is the post between the front and rear doors on a car. We conduct this research work with a group of companies through the entire supply chain, which in this case is led by Honda. The objective is to lightweight the pillar, since removing mass from the vehicle instantly improves fuel economy, but at the same time, it has to meet Honda’s above-average safety specifications which exceed industry standards. The research program also involves Magna as they stamp the parts on their presses, and ArcelorMittal, which manufactures the steel.

Q: Are the research facilities and expertise available at Waterloo unique in Canada?

MCKENZIE: We are unique, in a couple of aspects.

First, there is the sheer number of faculty working on projects in the automotive space. We have 125 professors who are active on automotive and mobility relevant projects. The faculty are from across all six faculties on campus, including distinctive areas like nanotechnology (energy storage), artificial intelligence (driver monitoring) and advanced systems design (human machine interface).

We also have graduate student researchers and staff engineers who are involved in those projects. So altogether, we have about 415 people across the campus working on research with automotive and mobility applications.Students working at WatCAR


We have unique facilities including an anechoic chamber (with walls designed to prevent the transmission of noise and electromagnetic interference of any kind) that can hold a full-size pickup truck. Most OEMs have their own anechoic chambers (which are useful in developing wireless communications devices or vehicular radar for driverless cars), but other companies, including suppliers and IT companies, do not have ready access to such a facility. So, we can do those tests in our anechoic chamber and provide them with the research results.

We also have our Green and Intelligent Automotive (GAIA) research facility, which has powertrain dynamometers that can be used to test hybrid, electric or combustion configurations outside a vehicle. While it is common to have an engine test cell, it is unique to have one with hybrid and electric capabilities as well. To my knowledge, there aren’t many facilities like that.

In October we will open our Autonomous Vehicle Research and Intelligence Laboratory (AVRIL) on campus. The facility will feature 10 vehicle bays with lift, an immersive driving simulator (270° wrap around screen) and a level 2 charger for electric vehicles.

Q: Is the convergence of artificial intelligence and transportation now making Waterloo even more important to the auto sector?

MCKENZIE: Absolutely. We are on the threshold of putting advanced artificial intelligence (AI) in vehicles and the Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute (Waterloo.AI) here at the university has researchers focused on practical applications in foundational and operational AI.

In our autonomous vehicle research, for example, we collect data from the way that the LiDAR system responds when encountering an icy road in winter conditions, analyze it and enhance the autonomous operating software’s algorithms by applying machine learning techniques. Artificial intelligence is definitely the next wave of technology for vehicles.

Q: Is climate change also sparking more interest in the research at Waterloo because car companies are being pushed to produce more electric vehicles and alternative fuel vehicles, for example?

MCKENZIE:  Definitely. Some of our research programs here are working to decrease the density of energy storage systems you can have onboard a vehicle, to further lightweight a vehicle, as well the process to put stored energy into the vehicle in a shorter time period. We are pursuing this along with advancements in fuel cell technologies, another energy source option for electric vehicle transportation. We are optimistic that this research will contribute towards significant advancements in advanced powertrains.

Q: Why is the research, and WatCAR’s role in connecting industry to that research, important to the economy of Waterloo and Canada?

MCKENZIE: It is vital to offer research capacity to the automotive sector for two reasons.

First, the sector needs to integrate new technologies and novel approaches rapidly, not only to embrace the advancements and improve their vehicles, but to also meet the ever-increasing expectations of consumer demand. Whether it is an autonomous vehicle, or just a highly automated vehicle that will slow you down because you’re approaching the vehicle in front of you too quickly, it is important for the industry to embrace those new technologies and integrate them into the vehicles.

But also, because of today’s requirements for flexible manufacturing, the industry has to be able to innovate faster to be competitive. If you look back 12 years ago, OEMs would refresh vehicle models every five years. Now, refresh rates are reduced to three years.

The role that WatCAR plays is as a portal to resources when companies, large or small, have a challenge they want help to solve. Having relevant research competencies readily accessible is something universities can offer and at the University of Waterloo we are fortunate to have a strong roster of researchers available.

In addition, Waterloo’s unique creator-owned intellectual property (IP) policy gives industry partners and our researchers flexibility in both the development and execution of research programs.

There are also start-up and scale-up companies, not only in our region, but across the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor that benefit from our facilities. For example, if a software company needs data from engine tests for their analytics software, often they do not have the facilities to run the required tests.
We can conduct those tests to their specifications and provide them the data, which is all they need.

Q. So these facilities are important to the success of new and emerging companies as well?

MCKENZIE: Absolutely. A perfect example is Acerta Analytics Solutions. The company was started by two University of Waterloo students who identified a need for data analytics specific to the automotive sector.

Acerta uses artificial intelligence tools, such as deep neural networks, to provide real-time malfunction detection and failure prediction. This is important to OEMs as there is a growing expectation for smart vehicles to monitor and predict malfunctions before they happen, including exhaust system leaks, engine misfires and gearbox failures.

Q: Does WatCAR refer your industry partners and clients to startup and scale-up companies?

MCKENZIE: Yes, we do this all the time.

Q: How will research happening in Waterloo contribute to changing not just vehicles but the advancement of mobility and transportation in general?

MCKENZIE: It’s about more than implementing or improving onboard solutions in a vehicle. Today it is also about mobility as a service (MaaS) and whether you own all of the vehicles that you use to get from place to place.

At WatCAR we talk about automotive plus mobility, because that’s the paradigm that we’re rapidly evolving into as a society, especially in densely populated urban environments.

*MaaS describes a shift away from personally-owned modes of transportation and towards mobility solutions that are consumed as a service. It might include, for example, the Uber or Lyft services or future autonomous cars that are shared by people throughout the day, as well as connecting those services to other modes of transit such as light rail.

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