With cars and trucks getting smarter all the time, where better to test the next generation of internet-connected vehicles than a city that the Intelligent Communities Forum ranked in 2011, 2012, and 2013 among its Top 7 Intelligent Communities of the Year. That city would be Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

Stratford's high ranking among cities worldwide is based in part on the free broadband Wi-Fi network that blankets the city. Digital infrastructure that extensive is unusual, even in the heart of a high-tech cluster like Southwestern Ontario, which makes Stratford an ideal location to road test internet-connected vehicles loaded with sensors, proximity-detection cameras and collision-avoidance technologies.

The Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association (APMA) is a lead partner in the 2016 pilot project. Connected car technologies are a growing focus for many APMA members, a trend that APMA President Flavio Volpe sees as a natural outgrowth of Ontario's unique industrial structure.

"Some jurisdictions have strong information technology (IT) sectors, others have automotive strength," said Volpe. "Ontario is the only place in North America where you will find world-class clusters in both automotive and IT."

The Stratford pilot test has gained a lot of traction among APMA members, Volpe reports. "More than 60 companies have already shown interest in participating in the project."

For Stratford, the pilot offers an opportunity to pursue the economic growth potential of connected car and autonomous vehicle technologies.

"About 60% of the manufacturing jobs in Stratford are linked to the automotive sector," said Marlene Coffey, CEO of InvestStratford, during a recent telephone interview. "Digital technology is another key sector and the Stratford campus of the University of Waterloo could be part of the pilot."

The University of Waterloo, a North American leader in technology engineering, is deeply immersed in connected- and autonomous-vehicle research.

The university's newly-launched $10-million Green and Intelligent Automotive (GAIA) powertrain research facility is focused on developing smarter automotive technologies that will minimize fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Funded in part through a $1 million donation from Toyota, GAIA is part of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR), Canada's largest academic-automotive research collaboration.

"In terms of research capabilities, GAIA is unique in North America," said WatCAR Managing Director Ross McKenzie during a presentation. "In addition to being directly connected to the grid, the facility has a 40-sensor network to monitor vehicle and powertrain data during tests."

But there are limits to what can be accomplished in even the most sophisticated research labs, which underscores the essential role played by pilot projects such as the one planned for Stratford.

Only by road-testing under real-world conditions can developers gain the confidence they need to bring innovative connected car technologies to market. The Ontario government paved the way for pilot projects in October 2015 with the announcement that it would allow on-road testing of autonomous vehicle technologies.

Expectations are high that valuable data will emerge from the pilot project.

"Our experience has been that the most successful partnerships involve three-way collaborations with governments, industry and academia," said Stratford's Marlene Coffey. "We want to leverage digital technologies that can help our traditional industries adapt and grow. That's why we invested in broadband infrastructure, and that's why we're exploring this pilot with the APMA."

While it may be years before truly fully autonomous vehicles are allowed on the highways, pilot projects like the one now in development for Stratford represent important milestones along the route.

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