Autonomous border

From the February 2021 print edition

It’s 2024 and the first 18 wheels to cross The Gordie Howe International Bridge (GHIB) connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario are unmanned and electrified. Too far-fetched? History would say no.
It was efficiency that rallied private investors in the 1920s to push for a river crossing that wasn’t quite as slow as what a ferry offered. By 1929, two years from ground break, the Ambassador Bridge did that. The suspension style span had eliminated the goods backlog once exclusively serviced by ferry. Now, this conduit accounts for over $1 billion in bilateral trade annually.

While the GHIB’s shovel dollars are significant ($4.4 billion at last estimate) and an additional crossing is long overdue, it’s mobility that’s capturing the headlines this time. We’re talking about autonomous movement across an international border. Looking closer, we can see a fertile ecosystem and the potential for a new economic tangent. Windsor is at an inflection point and the GHIB is a once-in-a-lifetime catalyst. Soon, we will see the integration of connected, autonomous, secure and electrified technologies travel across the world’s most advanced international span.

If you’ve yet to hear of things like CASE (connected, autonomous, secure, and electrified), V2X communication (vehicle-to-everything) and 5G, get ready for a multi-year info barrage. From telecom to cyber security, A/V to electrification, big business is piling into Windsor and they’re betting on auto mobility. And why not? What better place to incubate ideas? A geographic pinch-point that accounts for over 25 per cent of commerce between Canada and the US. It’s one that has a rich history of manufacturing and automotive success and collaborates with its neighbours to the south. The projects surrounding the erection of the Gordie Howe Bridge are pouring investment into what can quickly become the most innovative auto mobility hub in the country.

With opportunity comes responsibility
We can’t discount the area’s automotive prowess. We can’t overlook the tool and die sector, either. The progression from traditional manufacturing to one that includes the integration of smart technologies is a logical step forward. That said, Windsor has not taken its new namesake lightly. The region has focused on technologies and projects that will serve as the groundwork of its smart city vision.
In summer 2019, Kitchener, Ontario-based Miovision was engaged to address congestion along the runway to the Ambassador Bridge. By synchronizing signals and using sensory equipment, the Canadian tech company produced a 20-per cent improvement in flow.

As well, an initiative to digitally twin the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel will be the cornerstone for a bi-national autonomous vehicle. To support the project, Windsor will rely on its recently launched Public Virtual Reality Cave. The VR Cave, which touts the largest display in Canada, is an agnostic proving ground for technologies and services. By digitizing infrastructure, companies can test their solutions in a safe, cost-effective sandbox. For traffic applications, simulated testing harnesses sensor data and allows for proof of concept without interrupting, delaying or endangering commuters. With resources in place and digital twinning gaining steam, new technology bound for the GHIB will see significant screen time long before opening day.

Local institutions have homed in on these same opportunities, and they tuck in quite nicely. The University of Windsor recently received national praise when engineering professor Narayan Kar was recognized as one of the nation’s foremost leaders on vehicle electrification. This accolade comes after a summer that saw $4.3 million of funding from both federal and private partners such as Ford Motor Co., Nemak and D&V Electronics.

It comes as no surprise that the university quickly extended an olive branch to its crosstown counterpart, St. Clair College. Already a leading institution for intelligent manufacturing, the college is pioneering research in 5G use cases. With the support of Telus’s $250,000 investment, the college was the second institution in the country to adopt and launch a 5G mobile broadband network.

The overarching goal is autonomous vehicle testing. These two institutions have recognized that newly hatched businesses arising from the GHIB will require top talent to support their rapid growth. Together, they’ve aggressively answered the call with fresh collaborative programs that are industry immersive for their students.

Spinoff, you ask? Opportunity abounds. The region – strategically wedged between a reinvigorated Detroit and the Greater Toronto Area – is yet to fully join together modes of transportation. Already serviced by efficient roadways like the Herb Gray Parkway, rail, air and water, Windsor-Essex has the tools to become a leading multi-modal hub. Add to that the recent foreign trade zone (FTZ) designation and what you have is a vacuum for international investment, duty deferral and transformative manufacturing.

For Windsor, the next three years will determine whether the new bridge serves solely as a breezeway for commerce, or also as a location for technology and economic opportunity. If the early successes are any indication of what’s to come then buckle up for an exciting ride.

Adam Pernasilici, CCLP, CITP is vice-president at Laser Transport Inc.