Techopia Live: Hollywood comes to Ottawa’s autonomous vehicles hub

Before autonomous vehicles were being built in our own backyards, people would turn to Hollywood to inform our ideas of what a self-driving car can be: Night Rider’s Kit was exchanging witty banter with David Hasselhoff back in the ’80s; a recent instalment of the Fast and the Furious franchise featured Charlize Theron hacking a fleet of cars and turning city streets into a demolition derby.

While reality tends to be less fantastical than that, Chris Keefe – Aurrigo’s vice-president of autonomous programs – called on his 20 years spent as a film and TV producer in Hollywood to describe how the firm’s autonomous pods shuttle passengers across short distances.

Think back to Total Recall’s Johnny Cabs, Keefe suggested, which took a confused Arnold Schwarzenegger from place to place in the original 1990 film. He quickly added that Aurrigo’s model does not come with the “creepy” whistling driver.

Don’t expect to see pods from Aurrigo – Latin for “chariot” – driving alongside you on the 417. The U.K.-based firm, which landed in Ottawa earlier this spring, develops transport solutions for the “first and last mile” of transportation.

Its four-seat pods are ideal for getting people around amusement parks, retirement communities or industrial parks. Keefe suggested the Canadian Tire Centre might make good use of them during Senators games.

“You take a pod from where you park your car to the stadium. So you don’t have to endure the harsh Ottawa winter for that 10- to 15-minute walk,” he said during a recent episode of Techopia Live.

Aurrigo
Aurrigo’s vice-president of autonomous programs Chris Keefe alongside the company’s pod at Bayview Yards. Photo by Mark Holleron.

Speaking of the snow, Ottawa’s often-inclement weather was actually a point in the capital’s favour when Aurrigo, which also has offices in Texas and Australia, was looking for the next place to expand.

“Weather conditions that are less than ideal – sleet, snow, freezing rain – we have to contend with just like you would in any other vehicle. We really think this is the place to do it,” Keefe said.

Though he’s currently the firm’s only local employee, Keefe said the other reason Aurrigo chose to expand to Ottawa was the level of activity and available talent in the city. Ottawa’s stated ambition to be a hub for AV development, alongside resources from government and private-sector players, has made the capital attractive for companies such as Aurrigo, he said.

“You find out real quick that this is going to be one of the major spaces in autonomy.”

Keefe came into the Aurrigo fold while working on a robotics project in England with parent company RDM. Having grown up in Michigan before heading to Los Angeles, his automotive background lured him to the technical side of the industry.

Though he’s not tuning up Johnny Cabs or catching a Schwarzenegger one-liner on camera, Keefe’s La La Land state of mind might serve him well as he enters a new world.

“You look back to your childhood, there’s so many creative ways that Hollywood produces tech before it’s actually a thing,” he said.

“Now that the technology is available, we can create these wonderful machines, vehicles to make life better, easier and safer.”

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