IT World Canada

GM’s new Markham-based Technical Centre to act as company’s software hub

Ken Keizer, GM vice-president of global vehicle components and subsystems, during the opening of the car manufacturer's new Markham, Ont.-based Canadian Technical Centre on Jan. 19.

MARKHAM, ONT. – A new Greater Toronto Area (GTA) facility opened by General Motors on Friday will play a crucial role in the company’s digital transformation efforts, a company executive has told IT World Canada.

In particular the GM Canadian Technical Centre (CTC)’s new Markham campus, which is expected to employ approximately 1000 workers, will focus on developing software for autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, infotainment, and active safety, the company’s vice-president of global vehicle components and subsystems Ken Keizer said, noting that as the automotive industry becomes ever more technical the question has shifted from whether car manufacturers should enter the software industry to which components they should focus on.

“The question for us, really, is what GM should have ownership of from an IP standpoint, and what we should be purchasing from an outside supplier,” Keizer, who was visiting from GM’s Detroit headquarters, said during the Jan. 19 opening of the CTC Markham campus.

“Our forte is that we’ve been selling vehicles for over 100 years, so we have a pipeline in terms of what consumers are looking for,” he said. “So when we look at how we define ourselves, we think it’s most important to focus on control of the vehicle.”

That focus on control manifests itself in several ways, he said: In infotainment, with developers designing cars to interact with the media streamed from their users’ smartphones; autonomous systems, such as algorithms that ensure the vehicle remains in its lane; technical components such as all-wheel or electric drive systems; and vehicle dynamics.

“What the consumer is looking for, how the vehicle controls itself, and how you balance that control with all of the adaptive and active safety mechanisms that need to be in place – we’re triangulating and integrating all of that right here,” Keizer said.

Billed by GM as Canada’s largest automotive innovation hub, the 150,000 square-foot CTC Markham campus is GM’s fourth Ontario-based innovation facility, joining another CTC campus in nearby Oshawa; the 2908 Communitech innovation lab in Kitchener-Waterloo; and a cold weather testing centre in the northern Ontario community of Kapuskasing.

The company is also developing a new urban mobility campus in downtown Toronto.

Why Markham?

According to Keizer, the key reason GM chose Markham for its new CTC was the level of talent in the suburb’s surrounding region, which boasts 4,300 tech companies, including IBM Canada and AMD, two of the GTA’s top five corporate ICT research and development spenders – not to mention proximity to Canadian tech hubs Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo.

In fact, on the day it officially opened the new CTC Markham campus, GM announced that it would be contributing $1.8 million to a series of STEM-related educational programs, starting with a scholarship at the University of Waterloo.

“You can see the ecosystem that’s here,” Keizer said. “The community at large, academia, corporations, are all working together… It’s a very organic, entrepreneurial environment.”

It helps, of course, that GM has been investing in similar facilities across the world in recent years, as it pursues a goal of “Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, Zero Congestion,” with its vehicles at the centre.

“Today we have a Cadillac CT 6 with the Super Cruise driving system,” he said. “I drove one here… I could take my hands off the wheel; it would make the turns. It slowed down. It did everything… and I felt very safe, because the vehicle has enough sensing capability to make sure that I’m in the flow of traffic and avoiding accidents. So we’re doing that today.”

The work at its CTC facility, which will improve sensor, mapping, and driver prediction capabilities to start, are only going to augment that experience, he said.

“Then you take a zero emissions vehicle like the Volt, and layer on the autonomous experience I just described, you get zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.”