Magna vehicle on display at University of Waterloo
The University of Waterloo and Magna International partner to improve cybersecurity in autonomous vehicles. (left to right) Charmaine Dean, the university’s Vice-President, Research and Mary Wells, Dean of Faculty of Engineering. Photo: University of Waterloo

With $1.6 million in combined funding from the two partners and the federal government, researchers from the University of Waterloo will be seeking solutions to a critical industry challenge: securing autonomous vehicles against cyberattacks

The University of Waterloo is partnering with Magna International, the auto parts and vehicle assembly giant, and the federal government to fund an autonomous vehicle cybersecurity research project that will help ensure the safety and security of vehicles as they become more autonomous.  

Increasingly universities, engineers, automakers and legislators are reacting to autonomous driving functions in ways that indicate self-driving vehicles are a reality now and will play a considerable role in the future of transport.   

Waterloo’s five-year, $1.6-million project will focus on developing theories, methods and tools to create “complex automotive software” for connected and automated vehicles.  

Headshot of Sebastien Fischmeister
Professor Sebastian Fischmeister, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Waterloo University.

“Software is the major driver for innovation in automotive. New paradigms to realize functions in software are constantly emerging, with the latest one being machine learning,” says Sebastian Fischmeister, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Waterloo University in an emailed statement to Electric Autonomy Canada.   

“Industry has a huge demand for talent and highly trained personnel to continue their innovation through software, and there is a gap in understanding how new paradigms can be safely and securely used in safety-critical systems such as automotive.”  

In good company

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is providing $600,000 over five-years for the Waterloo project, while the University is investing $400,000. Magna, which is headquartered in Aurora, Ont., is contributing $600,000, along with a Jeep Cherokee test vehicle.

“The importance of safety in automotive systems cannot be overstated,” said Jim Quesenberry, director of research and development at Magna, in a press release. “Magna is committed to delivering products and systems that not only meet current safety standards but also define the benchmark for future performance.”

The research project will be taking place at the university’s shared researched hub, the Autonomous Vehicle Research and Intelligence Lab (AVRIL), which opened in 2020. AVRIL offers a space for researchers to work on a wide range of different mobility applications. The facility holds 10 truck-height work bays, a driving simulator with a 210-degree immersive screen, and level two chargers for electric vehicles. Projects currently in progress at AVRIL include research on third-row occupant protection, advanced driver monitoring data collection, automated eco-driving, autonomoose, WATonoBus, driving stimulations and extreme-terrain unmanned ground vehicles.

Fischmeister, who is the NSERC/Magna Industrial Research Chair in Automotive Software for Connected and Automated Vehicles and is also spearheading this most recent autonomous vehicle cybersecurity project, and will be working with the newest Waterloo faculty hire, Yash Vardhan Pant.  

“Yash’s expertise lies in decision-making algorithms for autonomous systems, and formal safety assurance of such systems with machine learning-based (software) modules in the decision-making loop,” explains Fischmeister. “Given that one of the biggest challenges facing autonomous systems is their lack of safety guarantees, this expertise will help in developing methods for automated testing of such systems to find out conditions that trigger unsafe behaviours, and also in improving the decision-making systems to overcome some of these limitations.”

Fostering longstanding partnerships

The results from Waterloo’s research will be given exclusively to the engineers from Magna, to develop new, secure features and products while also finding new ways to re-use older software to help shorten the development time of more complex products.

“To meet the demands of autonomous and connected systems Magna is excited to work with the University of Waterloo, and the deep knowledge and expertise that they bring to this initiative,” said Quesenberry.

In the past, Magna has worked closely with the engineering department at Waterloo, hiring over 575 co-operative students in the last 15 years and investing $200,000 for a new Waterloo Artificial Intelligence Institute in 2018. 

Mary Wells, dean of Waterloo Engineering, said in a press statement, “We are committed to research that goes beyond imagination, research that positively impacts the world. Industry partnerships that are rooted in real-world needs, like this important project with Magna, are the lifeblood of those research programs.”