An astonishing array of new automotive technologies are as transformative to the old family sedan as today's smartphones are to yesterday's rotary-dial telephone.

Hands-free parallel parking, automated crash-avoidance technologies, in-car infotainment systems with internet speeds faster than what many people have at home – what used to be science fiction is today as real as your neighbourhood dealer showroom.

Lift the hood on these technologies and what you'll find buried among the sensors and processors and software algorithms is the leading edge of human-machine interactions.

While engineering the components is a high-stakes challenge, getting the human-factor right is the Holy Grail for software developers like Lixar, based in Ottawa, Ontario.

Take fuel conservation as an example.

"Technology that monitors your fuel-efficiency rate in real-time can help drivers save gas and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions," Lixar founder and CEO Bill Syrros said during a recent tour of the company's sprawling new design and development facility in Ottawa. "But the skills of the individual driving that particular vehicle also affect fuel consumption and emissions. The technology needs to take those factors into account."

Lixar software is built into a wide range of successful new automotive technologies that have won CNET, CES and Edison awards. The company's clients include industry leaders such as GM, QNX and Delphi.

Lixar is involved with every stage of new technology development, from proof-of-concept through design and architecture to deployment. "Our clients give us a seat at their innovation table," said Syrros.

Two years ago, Lixar started a data science group to explore how a better understanding of machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence could help drivers, even with something as seemingly straightforward as improving fuel efficiency.

"Today, technology enables people to learn more about their cars," Syrros observed. "By 2020, your car will learn more about who you are."

If the idea of having a "get-to-know-you" relationship with your car puzzles some people, it's the happy playground for companies like Toronto/Japan-based iNAGO.

iNAGO's netpeople software platform is the brains behind an in-car digital assistant that can provide drivers with a wide range of information – everything from road conditions to restaurant recommendations – all through natural-language conversations.

A showcase of iNAGO technology

"These are far more advanced than simple interactions using specific, carefully worded voice commands," said iNAGO founder and CEO Ron Di Carlantonio during a presentation at the company's offices in Toronto's trendy Corktown neighbourhood. "These are goal-oriented conversations, more like discussions, during which the driver uses everyday language to ask questions and get information. Making the exchange more natural and more intuitive reduces driver distraction and that makes the interaction much safer."

Available in Japan since 2000, iNAGO is now launching its netpeople platform in North America and the rest of the world.

Given the human-centric nature of its technology, it comes as no surprise that people-focused criteria loomed large in the company's decision of where to establish its head office. iNAGO chose Ontario, Canada.

"The R&D engineering skills available in Ontario are extremely high," DiCarlantonio said. "Costs are 30 to 40% lower than in Silicon Valley and there is a multilingual, multicultural talent pool here, which can be a big help in developing products for world markets."

Ontario is one of the most diverse societies in the world, with roughly 50% of its population born outside Canada. It's also one of the few jurisdictions in the world where world-class automotive and technology clusters operate side-by-side. This juxtaposition feeds an environment in which innovative tech companies such as Lixar, iNAGO and approximately 100 others in the connected-automated vehicle sector can thrive and supply automotive OEMs and Tier One suppliers around the world.

If you want a glimpse of what's coming down the road in terms of automotive technologies, keep an eye on Ontario.

February 16, 2016

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