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Inside BlackBerry’s Push to Dominate the Security Market for Autonomous Cars

After its epic smartphone failure, BlackBerry is determined to fend off competitors in automotive.

Tracey Lindeman

Tracey Lindeman

BlackBerry's Grant Courville in an autonomous concept car. Image: Tobin Grimshaw

In the past few months, automotive technology giants like Baidu, Ford, Jaguar, NVIDIA, Visteon, and Denso have trumpeted new partnerships with an unlikely ally in the race to make the best, most secure autonomous car: BlackBerry.

“We’re seeing this public validation. Not only are they picking us, but they’re telling [that to] the world,” Grant Courville, senior director of product management, told me when I visited BlackBerry’s Ottawa headquarters last month. The company’s ultimate goal: to be every connected car's operating system.

The fabled smartphone maker—once the top choice for governments the world over because of its software’s superior security—had a spectacular and well-documented fall from grace beginning in 2011–2012, around the time that Apple’s iPhone usurped the market. At the height of its popularity, in mid-2008, BlackBerry stock was worth US$148 per share. In September 2012, it plummeted to $6.22. Today, it’s in the $10 per share range.

BlackBerry QNX's Ottawa headquarters. Image: Tracey Lindeman

Recovery has been slow and measured, beginning with the 2010 acquisition of Ottawa-based software company QNX. At the time of acquisition, QNX was owned by Harman International, the makers of Harman-Kardon and JBL speaker systems—as well as a quiet giant in automotive infotainment. Back then, autonomous cars weren’t even a blip on most people’s radars.

It may have been the smartest $200 million BlackBerry ever spent.

BlackBerry was inarguably ahead of the curve on smartphones. Today it finds itself in a similar position in automotive—but now, unlike last time, it’s determined to fend off the competitors lining up to eat its lunch.

Earlier this year, CEO John Chen announced the ex-mobile maker was no longer in turnaround mode—that it had successfully and profitably migrated its business from hardware to software and cybersecurity services. Combining BlackBerry’s security and mobile-device expertise with QNX’s embedded, real-time operating systems, the company is now sharply focused on connected devices and automotive.

Whether it can fend off its competitors remains to be seen. Sean Silcoff, a Canadian journalist who co-authored with Jacquie McNish the 2015 book Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, said many of the competitive conditions the company now faces are familiar ones. “When they started offering wireless data, they were entering an established and very crowded market,” he said on the phone.

“BlackBerry was fearless, but also confident it had a better solution—and indeed, it zeroed in on what emerged as the killer app of the early internet economy, wireless email,” he continued.

“We want to be the operating system for the car, period.”

Its fatal flaw came from overestimating the business market, underestimating the general public’s demand for mobile email access, and failing to react when Apple and Google changed the paradigms of the smartphone market. BlackBerry faces similiar dynamics with automotive.

Inside of the company’s suburban Ottawa headquarters, a handful of male engineers putter around a garage holding three “autonomous” cars and a mess of computers. This is where the magic happens.

Software developer David van Geyn pops the trunk of the gunmetal grey Lincoln MKZ that last fall did the first public autonomous-car test drive in Canada. With a Velodyne LIDAR sensor strapped to its roof and a trunk full of blinking lights and wires, it is not exactly the sleek, sophisticated vehicle most people may have in mind when they picture an autonomous car.

Courville and the Lincoln MKZ. Image: Tobin Grimshaw

BlackBerry—or the BlackBerry QNX product group, as it’s now officially known—is in the throes of dividing up its products and services for better commercialization opportunities. “We have a lot of expertise and technology that was traditionally inward-facing,” explained Courville, who got his start with QNX in the 1980s as a software developer. “We’re turning those around and offering BlackBerry’s security services in automotive,” he said, citing penetration testing, vulnerability testing, security posture, and architecture consulting as examples.

This is part of a prolonged process in which the company cherrypicks the best of its technology, and the best of QNX’s, and merges them into automotive products. Courville pointed to over-the-air (OTA) software updates and the company’s recently unveiled Jarvis tool, which scans and secures software for vulnerabilities.

“Some CEOs have recognized that they’ll make 10 times more money on the car by delivering after-sale services. This isn’t the in-the-garage mechanical services; [I’m talking] software services, connectivity services. They have to be able to get the software to the car conveniently,” he said.

OTA and security are hot markets. Colin Bird, a senior automotive technology analyst for IHS Markit, said it could be one of the key areas where BlackBerry can make an impact, “but so far, none of these areas have made it into a [commercial] automobile.” As for its operating system, Bird said BlackBerry will have to defend itself against Green Hills Software, IBM, Irdeto, and other players.

Read More: Watch a Hacked, Internet-Connected Car Wash Repeatedly Attack a Car

Still, according to Courville, many of BlackBerry QNX’s competitors are approaching it from a proprietary point of view. The biggest problem there is that—as is the case with “dumb” cars—a single autonomous car may contain components from hundreds of suppliers. If no one’s behind the wheel, it’s of critical importance that these components are operationally unified. “If it’s proprietary in nature, there will be no way to [connect cars] efficiently, safely, securely,” said Courville.

Of course, BlackBerry QNX’s solution is also proprietary in principle, although it’s meant to serve as a single platform on which all components work in concert. Essentially, said Courville, “We want to be the operating system for the car, period.”

Inside the autonomous concept car. Image: Tobin Grimshaw

The company is working to position itself as a setter of standards for next-gen automotive, as it once did for mobile phones—and as QNX has done for other safety-critical systems including transponder landing, nuclear-reactor monitoring, and patient monitoring. Last month, the company published a set of seven recommendations for automotive cybersecurity to this effect.

“This is how we need to think about security,” said Courville. “It can’t be an afterthought. It’s not a patch that you’re going to do to something. To do it right, you have to do it right from design, right from day one, right from chip manufacturing.”

Correction: BlackBerry QNX is in fact a 'product group' within BlackBerry. The story has been updated to reflect that.

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