Carmakers must calm consumer fears about cost, not just collisions, to fuel the market for self-driving cars, an executive from BlackBerry QNX said Thursday.

During his keynote at a Toronto conference, Grant Courville said there are two main risks consumers want to steer clear of before buying autonomous cars: collisions and cybersecurity breaches. Even if they feel those risks have been minimized to acceptable levels, however, people will probably balk at the cost of technology required to make the vehicles safe, he said.

“We have to focus on safety and security. (But) if it’s not affordable, we’ve lost,” said Courville, head of product management at BlackBerry QNX Software Systems.

Courville: “If it’s not affordable, we’ve lost.”

Safety first

Courville said in-car infotainment systems used to be consumers’ most preferred application for autonomous technology. But he cited new survey data showing that collision avoidance technology now tops the wish list of features that buyers want in autonomous cars.

“The flipside is, (consumers) don’t want to pay for it. The younger generation will, but the older and middle generations won’t. So we’re expecting the automakers to absorb that cost,” Courville predicted.

Installing extra hardware and software for safety and cybersecurity adds extra weight and complexity to every vehicle, he explained, which drives up the cost of manufacturing the cars.

Business opportunities

Despite those added operating expenses, Courville said “there are tremendous revenue opportunities” in the autonomous and connected car sector. They include data collection, retail (with each vehicle as a virtual storefront), insurance, content (with riders as ‘captive’ content consumers in their vehicles), tailored maintenance (such as predictive repair diagnostics), vehicle-to-vehicle technology and V2P applications (vehicle-to-pedestrian).

Those business opportunities are spurring traditional automakers to team up with startups and pure play technology firms, he said. In one such pairing, BlackBerry QNX signed a deal last fall to develop applications for Ford Motor Company.

(Even huge tech companies are looking to other tech firms for an entry point to the self-driving car market. According to media reports circulating last summer, Apple Inc. has hired QNX’s founder and former CEO, Dan Dodge, to work in its burgeoning autonomous vehicle unit.)

BlackBerry’s QNX success

QNX is a bright spot for BlackBerry Ltd., which has faltered in the cutthroat smartphone wars. BlackBerry QNX, which has been making in-car entertainment software for 20 years, is extending that expertise into the market for connected and autonomous vehicles. More than 60 million vehicles worldwide already contain QNX technology such as infotainment software, hands-free software and telematics systems.

Courville said BlackBerry QNX’s goal is to provide end-to-end software and managed services for connected and autonomous cars, equipping them with authentication, connectivity and safety.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at the opening of the new BlackBerry QNX Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Centre in Ottawa last December. (Image: YouTube)

The company opened its new Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Centre in Ottawa last December. A month later at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it demoed QNX SDP 7.0, its latest software development platform for connected and autonomous vehicles.

At Thursday’s Conference Board of Canada event, Courville said BlackBerry QNX is trying to boost Canada’s autonomous vehicle sector by using Canadian partners and suppliers whenever possible.

BlackBerry QNX demoed its new software for connected and autonomous vehicles in this self-driving Lincoln at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. (Photo: BlackBerry QNX)

“(Canada) has got to get on the map globally. We’re not quite there,” he said, before adding that BlackBerry QNX is “big on Canada first, I’ll be very honest.” He said Canadian content in QNX products includes algorithms developed at the University of Waterloo and GPS technology from Calgary-based NovAtel Inc.

Autonomous vehicle timeline

So how soon will completely autonomous vehicles (requiring no driver intervention or attention at all) hit public roads? Courville – who drives a 1966 Mustang – doesn’t see it happening for another 10 to 15 years, mainly due to consumer fears over their safety.

Those fears appear to be easing somewhat. A Kanetix.ca survey of 1,000 Canadians released in January found more than a quarter (26 per cent) “can’t wait” to see autonomous vehicles on public roads, up slightly from 25 per cent a year earlier.

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