The race among automakers to gain competitive advantage in the emerging "connected car" and "automated vehicle" space has led them to seek ground-breaking new ideas in some unusual places.

For GM Canada, it includes establishing an innovation research outpost alongside student-led start-ups in Communitech, a high-energy business accelerator located inside a 150-year-old former leather tannery in Waterloo, Ontario.

Scheduled to open in January 2016, the move is a key step in GM Canada's broadening R&D commitment and investment in Ontario.

In April 2015, GM Canada awarded its Oshawa Engineering Centre a global mandate to develop connected car and urban mobility solutions. Currently, the centre has 190 employees. To fulfill the new mandate, it plans to hire 100 new software engineers.

"Canada has distinct advantages in mobile technology, engineering skills, applied research and a strong automotive history," GM Canada President Steve Carlisle said in November 2015 during speeches at the Canadian Club in Toronto and the Economic Club in Ottawa. "The Province of Ontario's leadership in allowing autonomous vehicle testing was a helpful support in securing this advanced technology work for our Canadian facility."

Starting in 2016, Ontario will allow companies to test automated vehicles and related technology on-road. Ontario, a major research and production centre in North America for both automotive and high tech, has nearly 100 companies and institutions involved in the fast-growing connected vehicle and automated vehicle industry. Regulatory clearance for on-road testing will enable Ontario to become an international test bed for a wide range of vehicle technologies.

"Ontario has many of the same kinds of weather, congestion and density issues as other major markets," explained Mathew Bertin, GM Canada's Director of Government Relations, during a tour of the Oshawa Engineering Centre. "It's an ideal place to develop, test and perfect technologies, then export them globally. What we're creating is a new kind of global automotive technology supply chain."

GM Canada's investment in Waterloo also includes donating $1 million to fund a Research Chair in advanced materials at the University of Waterloo as well as sponsoring student Capstone software design projects.

At Communitech, GM Canada will be thrust into the hurly-burly of hot young tech companies growing from the sketches-on-the-back-of-a-napkin phase to market entry and beyond.

Current tenants include connected car start-ups such as Pit Stop, a consumer-oriented system monitoring technology that plugs into a vehicle's on-board diagnostic port to predict vehicle failure before it happens, and Varden Labs, which has developed a low-speed, self-driving shuttle for golf courses, retirement communities and similar controlled settings.

While Communitech's focus is on start-ups, there are also some small and medium-sized companies and a few enterprise-scale tenants.

"What GM will find here is an entrepreneurial environment and a lot of innovation-driven young people," said Communitech's Kayleigh Platz during a recent tour of the facility. "What's different about Communitech is, from the beginning, our model for business growth has been based on collaborative, peer-to-peer learning."

Platz has observed that, often of the hardest lessons for enterprise-scale clients to learn is that failure is not a bad thing. "For entrepreneurs, failure is a learning opportunity, a chance to do something better," Platz said. "That can be a hard concept to grasp for someone accustomed to a corporate environment."

But some enterprise tenants thrive in the environment. Canadian Tire and TD Bank are both opening additional development spaces in Waterloo.

GM Canada is hoping some of Communitech's entrepreneurial spirit will help accelerate its drive to become a leader in connected car technologies not just for North America but for customers around the world.

February 17, 2016

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