Equipping a Porsche 911 Carrera with an infotainment system, one-touch Bluetooth pairing technology and HD-quality sound was a three-month labour of love for five Ottawa-based companies. The project culminated in a best in show award at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year.
Among those companies is QNX Software Systems Ltd., known for its operating systems and for being a subsidiary of Research in Motion, but also for being highly active in the automotive world - its office includes workshop garages as well as standard office space.
Porsche uses QNX software in all of its cars, and allowed the Ottawa firm to showcase a technologically souped-up Carrera at this year's CES. The only issue? QNX had just three months to start and finish the project before the show. To lighten the load, it assembled a team of Ottawa firms at breakneck speed.
Enter Design 1st, a local development firm that took on the mechanical engineering, along with Lixar, Code Edge and bitHeads, all of which worked together on the development of OpenGL graphics applications and Flash development.
The team tore out the existing sound system and redeveloped it so that no one would know it had been touched. It had to look and feel exactly like a Porsche.
"When someone says, ‘Here's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen, can you improve it?' it's a little bit daunting," says Mark Rigley, head of the concept team and QNX's concept development manager.
There was no handbook; no help from Porsche on how to de- and reassemble the vehicle.
"We were making it up as we went along," Mr. Rigley says.
For Miles Hammond from Design 1st, who was in charge of reinstalling the technology, that included taking out the existing buttons, cutting them into pieces and reinserting them - and copies of them - into the car.
When the team presented the finished product at the CES showroom, they were the only exhibit with a working demonstration where people could sit, touch and experience the technology.
"You saw somebody sit in the car and say, ‘Yes, I could have this car. I could drive it out of here right now,'" says Mr. Hammond.
That was key to the car's success, helping it take home CNET's Best in Show award for car technology - something no one in the team expected.
"If it didn't catch on fire and burn down the place, I would've been happy," says Mr. Rigley. "It was like I had to put the fire extinguisher down to take the trophy and say, ‘What the hell happened?'"
ADDRESSING DRIVER DISTRACTION
One of the main concerns surrounding infotainment systems within automobiles is that it takes the driver's focus off the road. For example, pairing a telephone with a car is often challenging and varies from vehicle to vehicle. Some people get so frustrated trying to pair them that they simply stop trying, says Derek Kuhn, QNX's vice-president of sales and marketing. That's when distraction becomes an issue.
To combat this, QNX used its connected automotive reference application platform (yes, that means the acronym is CAR) to create a one-touch Bluetooth pairing system using near-field communications, a tag located within cellphones. Place the phone on top of a tag reader in the vehicle, and the phone is paired.
"Even though the technology is really complex, for the user it's so simple, so seamless, they don't even have to think about it," Mr. Kuhn says. "Just beep, and it's done."
Drivers can also spend more time focusing on the road and less on filling in the blanks of poor phone connections, thanks to a 48-kilohertz full stereo bandwidth sound system of the same quality one would find in a telepresence room.
"Your brain isn't having to replace the dropped consonants," says Paul Leroux, QNX's public relations manager and a member of the concept team. "There's a bit more brain left over for driving."
The concept Porsche's dashboard technology is essentially a BlackBerry PlayBook, which runs on a QNX-designed real-time operating system. Two more PlayBooks installed in the back seat add to the infotainment system; different media can play on each of the screens at any one time.
Elements of the car's technology will be featured in QNX's CAR 2 application platform, which is due to be released later this year, at which time the company will potentially take on more contracts with automakers and original equipment manufacturers, Mr. Kuhn says.
QNX, founded in Ottawa in 1980, has been working with automakers for more than a decade, including Audi, Fiat and Rolls-Royce. It remained a private company until 2004 when it was purchased by Harman International. RIM bought the company from Harman in 2010.
This Porsche was not QNX's first concept car project. The company previously worked with Toyota on a Prius platform, and with Alcatel-Lucent on the first long-term evolution equipped car - before there were even LTE bandwidths.
"When someone says, ‘Here's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen, can you improve it?' it's a little bit daunting." - Mark Rigley, QNX's concept development manager
Mr. Leroux says QNX constantly faces the surprise that an Ottawa company is leading the software market for cars.
"This is not exactly an automotive town," he says.
It appears, however, that it may be becoming one.
QNX Software Systems Ltd.
Local employees: 300
Offers real-time operating systems
technology, development tools and
professional engineering services.
Local employees: 12
A team of industrial designers and mechanical engineers providing product design for multinationals and startup
Local employees: 70
Offers design, development and support of web and mobile applications, business process automation and system/database integration.
Local employees: 110
Custom software developer.
Local employees: More than 20
Real-time and embedded systems
Source: Ottawa Technology Magazine and OBJ staff
What it took to get the concept Porsche 911 Carrera completed in time for the 2012 CES Convention:
• Three months
• Multiple expert teams working at a common location
• Seven iterations of the instrument cluster
• More than 200 software revisions
• Addition of more than 40 custom parts
• Installation of four hidden computers
• Multiple hidden power systems to keep the car alive during demonstrations
• 10 hand-made connectors
• 100 feet of custom wiring
• 15 hidden control buttons
• Four person years of software development