Ottawa's burgeoning autonomous car hub on a roll

David Keene believes he's found the perfect city for winter-testing his driverless pods, while at the same time establishing a North American headquarter for his U.K. company.

U.K. maker of driverless pods selects Ottawa for North American HQ

Aurrigo Canada CEO David Keene said Ottawa's cluster of autonomous vehicle technology companies makes it the perfect city for his U.K. company's North American headquarters. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

David Keene believes he's found the perfect city for winter-testing his driverless pods, while at the same time establishing a North American headquarter for his U.K. company.

"We came here last year and we were really surprised with what's going on here in Ottawa," said Keene, CEO of Aurrigo Canada.

The Coventry-based company designs and builds the Pod Zero, an autonomous vehicle that can seat up to four passengers and transport them short distances within pedestrian areas, all at an average speed of 10 km/h.

Keene made his announcement Wednesday during his speech at the annual Ottawa autonomous vehicle summit, held in Kanata. The area is home to several firms which develop technology for use in driverless vehicles.

"The collection of very, very high-tech companies working in our field, there's just a critical mass of those now in Ottawa," Keene said. "We thought, we need to be a part of that, that makes good sense for collaborations in the future, so it was a natural thing."

Mike Tremblay, president and CEO of Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards, said the cluster of autonomous vehicle companies in Kanata North is considering building a private test track in the near future. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Pod Zero, so-named because the vehicles are powered by battery and emit no fumes, is intended to carry people, especially those with mobility issues, short distances within areas such as hospitals, university campuses, tourist destinations, airports and train stations.

Keene said his pods are currently undergoing live trials in four cities including Milton Keynes in the U.K., where they're operating between the central train station and a park popular with tourists. But more testing is needed, and that's another reason for choosing Ottawa.

"We're looking for research and development partners. For instance, we don't have a lot of snow in the U.K., and you guys have a lot of snow and some very cold temperatures, so that would be a really nice project to see how we make this pod applicable in Ottawa."

According to a news release from Aurrigo on Wednesday, the company has already enlisted Carleton University to do automated vehicle trials on campus.

'A real hub'

Ottawa made national headlines in October 2017 when the first trial run of a driverless vehicle on a public street in Canada was held at the Kanata North Technology Park.
The difference between Ottawa and the other locations is that they're really working hard to bring the companies together.- David Keene, CEO of Aurrigo Canada

Even before the test, the area had been branding itself as a cluster for driverless technology, thanks in large part to a promotional push by Invest Ottawa, the agency tasked with promoting high-tech economic development in the city.

"We've had tremendous help from Invest Ottawa to get our company here," Keene said. "The difference between Ottawa and the other locations is that they're really working hard to bring the companies together, and they're also looking to get some government support, some grant money, into developing the technology. That's a real hub, that's where we want to be."
Aurrigo's driverless Pod Zero is designed to carry up to four passengers in areas where cars are banned. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Mike Tremblay, president and CEO of Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards, said that reputation didn't materialize overnight.

"When you look at the underpinnings of the technology that go into autonomous vehicles, all the capability that we need to do the majority of the work is already here," said Tremblay. "This is why you're seeing organizations like Aurrigo show up in the city to take advantage of what is already here".

Test track in the works

Two recent fatal crashes involving autonomous vehicles were also on the minds of attendees at the summit. According to Tremblay, Ottawa is once again well positioned to help advance the technology.

"I think one of the big contributions Ottawa can make to the world is safety," said Tremblay. "Security safeguards are a very core part of what is being built here."

Tremblay added that the autonomous business community in Ottawa is looking to build a private test track for more extreme trials.

As for how soon we can expect to see driverless cars and pods operating in Ottawa, Keene said his headquarters will include a sales office, but he's not yet ready to name any potential local clients.

"We have some interesting conversations going on," Keene said.