From process innovators such as Polar Sapphire to more traditional software-focused companies, the loose conglomeration of tech talent along the Toronto-Waterloo corridor totals nearly 300,000 workers and 15,000 companies, of which 5,000 are startups, according to the Waterloo Region Economic Development Corp.
Not all of these companies are active in automotive. But Ross McKenzie, managing director of the University of Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR), said the province’s automotive heartland — stretching from Oshawa on the east end of the Greater Toronto Area to Windsor, Ont. — creates a ready market for technology companies.
“It augurs well for the [tech] corridor to support the automotive sector because … we’re the only jurisdiction in North America where you have the overlapping clusters,” he said.
In the United States, McKenzie noted, the auto industry is centred in Michigan, while much of the tech sector is in California’s Silicon Valley.
“Here in Canada,” he said, “one sits on top of the other.”
The simultaneous advance of AVs and EVs has opened the door for software companies capable of making sense of the data that next-generation vehicles rely on, as well as firms able to help suppliers develop new, often untested electrical components.
One such example is Vaughan, Ont.-based Kepstrum Inc. Its methodology and accompanying software help auto parts suppliers develop, prototype and qualify new vehicle components faster and with less risk of recall, said Siavash Kianpour, who heads business development at the company.
“The different components are coming to market at a really unprecedented pace,” Kianpour said. “A really rapid shift with very limited data, that’s where our expertise comes into play.”
Kepstrum’s process relies on modelling as opposed to historical data — a clear competitive edge when most EV parts have not been put through their paces in real-world conditions, Kianpour said.
The company recently partnered with parts supplier Stackpole International Inc. and London, Ont.’s Armo-Tool Ltd. on an end-of-line tester based on Kepstrum’s analytical algorithms to improve quality control processes in plants. The collaboration is funded in part by Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), the industry-led group behind the federal government’s manufacturing supercluster program.
MAGNA, CUM LAUDE
Collaboration between industry and academia is also shaping the future of the industry.
Parts supplier Magna International Inc., based just north of Toronto in Aurora, Ont., recently wrapped up a five-year research project with the University of Waterloo. The work focused on using AI to learn driver behaviours to help shape how the company integrates advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) into its upcoming products.
Partnering with the university continually challenges Magna’s internal assumptions, said Jim Quesenberry, the supplier’s director of research and development.
“We use these interactions and really prompt the thinking of students and faculty who don’t have an automotive heritage or any of our past hang-ups,” Quesenberry said, “and they inject new ways of thinking into this. It can set us off in a new direction that we hadn’t considered yet.”
For the University of Waterloo, the partnerships create a unique opportunity for students and faculty to engage with industry on real-world problems, McKenzie said. Inevitably, he said, many of the students feed back into the tech and auto ecosystem after graduation.