'Autonomous shuttles are past the phase of the one-week demo'

tenille houston
Tenille Houston runs AutoGuardian, which is developing autonomous driving technology.

This article originally appeared in the fall edition of the Ottawa Business Journal, which you can read here

If the strong market vibes the folks at AutoGuardian are sensing are any indication, the Stittsville-based startup could soon be embarking on an unobstructed path to growth.

AutoGuardian has been steadily gaining speed since being spun off from Ottawa smart-sensor manufacturer SmartCone in 2018. The firm’s autonomous vehicle expertise is now on full display in Whitby, where AutoGuardian is operating a driverless shuttle service for GO Transit passengers in the community east of Toronto as part of a new pilot project.

AutoGuardian’s flagship product is a platform designed to make sense of the data compiled by sensors that guide autonomous vehicles.

The company’s software gathers information such as the amount of power consumed by electric shuttles and the number of passengers who board the vehicles. It then crunches the numbers and displays them on a dashboard, providing transit services and government agencies with real time, easy-to-road updates on all aspects of the driverless vehicles’ operation.

CEO Tenille Houston, who started her career in AV tech as SmartCone’s marketing chief before taking the helm of AutoGuardian in 2019, says demand for the firm’s services is steadily growing as more driverless shuttle pilot projects like the one in Whitby are launched.

“Autonomous shuttles are past the phase of the one-week demo at a show,” she says. “We’re moving this technology forward into ‘What does this look like in an integrated transit service?’ Cities want data, but data can be overwhelming. We try to (whittle) it down to what is needed.”

AutoGuardian was formed after its parent company won a bid three years ago to provide sensors and other data for the AV project in Whitby. After landing that contract, the firm then secured a deal in the industry mecca of Detroit, where its platform was used in a driverless vehicle at the North American International Auto Show.

“We kind of realized, ‘OK, we’re definitely getting traction,’” Houston says.

But just as the Whitby project was gearing up, the pandemic intervened, pausing the project and changing AutoGuardian’s course.

The delay gave the company time to work out a plan to become the shuttle’s end-to-end operator. Houston and her team ended up plotting the vehicle’s six-kilometre route, securing the necessary federal and provincial permits and hiring and helping train the on-board technician.

The startup has been contracting out most of its work so far, and Houston was a one-person show before hiring a full-time operations manager a few months ago. But she’s planning to add at least four new employees in the next few weeks as things start ramping up for AutoGuardian.

The firm recently signed on to a project backed by Transport Canada that will see it develop a smartphone app that will alert drivers to potential safety hazards, such as pedestrians stepping out from behind a vehicle or a car quickly approaching from the rear. AutoGuardian hopes to start testing the product at Ottawa’s Area X.O. autonomous vehicle track this year.

Houston says the company has already brought in more than $1-million in revenues in 2021, with more expected. While AutoGuardian is still bootstrapped, she points to the recent fundraising success of ventures such as California-based autonomous delivery company Gatik – which snagged US$85-million in a series-B round in August – as proof that the AV space is poised for a breakthrough with venture capitalists.

“Really, it’s all about trying to get investment to be able to scale and meet the demand that I’ve been seeing,” Houston says. “It’s a wonderful problem to have.”