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A timely acquisition six years ago is putting BlackBerry in the forefront of in-car infotainment systems and enabling development of secure autonomous vehicles.

You may be using its product already, says Thomas Bloor, business development manager for BlackBerry QNX software systems.

"We're in a majority of IVI [in-vehicle infotainment] head units out there today; we're in 60 million vehicles," he said in a recent interview at the Los Angeles Auto Show. "We're the predominant operating system in that marketplace today. It's a nice place to be."

A pilot program in Canada will be sending autonomously driven vehicles onto Ontario public roads; off-road testing is underway now. The project brings together nine computer-science and engineering professors from the University of Waterloo's Centre for Automotive Research, and involves the Erwin Hymer Group in addition to BlackBerry Ltd. A 2017 Lincoln MKZ, dubbed Autonomoose, and a Roadtrek E-Trek are the test vehicles.

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"(BlackBerry) QNX is a leader in embedded software for connected cars and autonomous drive," John Wall, senior vice-president at BlackBerry, said in a statement released on Monday. He said the company is taking another step toward making autonomous vehicles "a commercial reality."

BlackBerry QNX flies under the radar as far as consumers are concerned, but it is well known in the auto industry for its "microkernel" operating system. It allows applications such as navigation, radio, mobile phone and media player, perhaps developed separately, to operate without conflicts.

The software, installed in 40 different brands, allows you to go seamlessly from browsing your tunes via Apple CarPlay to looking up a route or making a telephone call.

"Today, a lot of the systems put into the car are built and sourced in isolation from each other," Bloor said. "So, a lot of systems end up fighting each other in the car."

At the show, BlackBerry QNX demonstrated how its system can allow a driver to use the infotainment unit's active noise cancellation to talk to kids in the third row of an SUV without taking his eyes off the road, using a microphone and rear speakers.

"It's done in a very natural way," he said, chatting normally while engine and road noise was pumped into the cabin.

BlackBerry QNX, which also develops software for medical, transportation, defence and security applications, is based in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata. It employs about 500 engineers and plans to hire more, Bloor said.

BlackBerry acquired the 45-year-old company from Harman International in 2010 and adapted QNX's widely used operating system as a basis for its Blackberry 10 OS.

Since then, BlackBerry QNX's automotive segment has become a growing part – Bloor won't say how much – of BlackBerry's business.

"We have very strong customer acceptance in the industry and we have an enviable customer base in the automotive space," he said.

In 2014, Ford abandoned the bug-prone MyFord Touch infotainment suite developed with Microsoft in favour of the BlackBerry QNX system. Last month, Ford signed a deal for expanded use of QNX software and BlackBerry's vaunted security-encryption software.

"The future of the automobile is all about embedded intelligence," BlackBerry chief executive John Chen said in the Oct. 31 announcement. "I believe our expertise in secure embedded software makes us the preferred technology provider to put the smart in the car."

Security is critical to develop hack-resistant autonomous vehicles, Bloor said.

"We are bringing a lot of the security assets that secure the BlackBerry phones into the automotive space," he said.

Self-driving cars that are commanded by their occupants or dispatched through a linked network need to have a very high standard of security.

"Moving forward towards this vision of the autonomous connected vehicle, you can't really build a safe system if you can't make it secure," Bloor said. "Obviously, safety and security are very strongly intertwined."

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