Magna, Canadian university partner on $1.3M AV R&D project


Canadian supplier Magna International Inc. and the University of Waterloo in Ontario announced Monday a $1.3 million ($1.6 million CAD) joint project designed to enhance the safety and cybersecurity of self-driving vehicles.

Jim Quesenberry, director of research and development at Magna, said the five-year collaboration will aim to tackle some of the big issues in the “increasingly complex” modern transportation industry.

“As we look at what Uber or Amazon Delivery has done for us in terms of convenience and efficiency — and hopefully affordability — there are things behind that that we have to ensure are done with the utmost safety and security,” he said.

Sebastian Fischmeister, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university, said the research will focus on keeping vehicles — along with the people in and around them — safe, even as automated systems take on more tasks typically relegated to drivers. The teams will also look at safeguarding privacy and security as an increasing number of vehicle systems are connected to the Internet. The university is home to the Autonomous Vehicle Research and Intelligence Lab.

Driver-assistance features on a new test vehicle, provided by Magna, include systems for emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane keeping. More advances will likely be added over the five-year life of the project. For Fischmeister, these sorts of features represent the latest in a long line of steps forward for vehicle automation. That began more than a century ago with the electric starter, he said.

“People no longer had to crank the engine and potentially break their thumb.”

Fischmeister, who is also the head of the Real-Time Embedded Software Group at Waterloo and the executive director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research, will lead the project. He said the work will put roughly a dozen masters, PhD and post-doctoral students to work developing software designed for the auto sector.

Funding for the project totals around $1.3 million, with the university contributing about $317,000 and Magna spending around $475,000, as well as offering up the test vehicle. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada  will provide the remaining $475,000.

Waterloo has brought in a new specialist in control systems and general decision-making for autonomous systems as a direct result of the funding as well. Yash Vardhan Pant said he will focus on smoothing out what are known as “corner cases,” or situations that fall outside normal vehicle operating parameters.

Fixes that Waterloo researchers develop for these scenarios may find their way into Magna parts or software. 

“If we find a solution that claims it can handle that corner case, it would be a wonderful addition to add a sensor or add a control algorithm to this and then put the safety mechanisms in place,” Quesenberry said.

Over the course of the project, Magna’s engineering teams will work with their counterparts at Waterloo, as well as provide the researchers with real-world problems. The parts supplier and Ontario university have been close collaborators over the years, with the University of Waterloo heading up several company-backed projects and Magna hiring more than 500 co-op students from the university over the past 15 years.

Though the latest research project has a five-year horizon, Fischmeister was non-committal on whether fully autonomous vehicles may be roaming Canadian streets by the mid-2020s.

“Who would have thought in 1995 when they thought about mobile phones how we would use mobile phones today? And the same thing will happen with autonomous vehicles. As we develop the technology, we will see new challenges and we will see new opportunities as well.”

He said no matter the timeline the goal should be vehicles that are safe, secure and that people can step into without worrying the autonomous systems may let them down.

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