“It is hard for most people to really imagine the staggering amounts of data that need to be sorted, parsed and secured to make connected cars – and eventually autonomous cars – really ready for the road,” BlackBerry engineering VP Rupen Chanda told PYMNTS.
Important data, too.
“We’re talking about literally hundreds of millions of lines of code – and automakers will be responsible for making sure it is all up to industry standards and secured against attacks from cybercriminals. And, of course, able to run, flawlessly, in real time, while a car is traveling anywhere from 30 to 80 miles per hour,” Chanda continued.
The cyberattacks, Chanda noted, are real and certainly coming – he believes the question is not a matter of if or even a matter of when. The unfortunate reality, he said, is that cybercriminals are already working hard to crack car systems, and will only keeping working harder as cars are more connected and increasingly software-dependent.
What is an attractive target today, he maintained, will only become a more attractive target.
And while that is bad news for auto manufacturers, drivers and third-party equipment makers, it is good news for BlackBerry, in a way, because that massive, emerging need has a platform – quite literally – for the company to begin its second life as a technology firm on the cutting edge of what’s next.
A Farewell To The Mobile Arms Race
Once the mightiest player in the world of mobile phones, BlackBerry used to be the standard for cool and cutting-edge phones, so addictive that the device was commonly called "the Crackberry." But BlackBerry from went a position of prominence to a cautionary tale about how quickly a brand can be disrupted and displaced in the face of competitors who see the future and use software and services to define it.
For BlackBerry, that’s meant leveraging the one thing that set the company apart, and gave everyone from investment banks to financial institutions to the President of the United States comfort in using it: its ability to transmit messages securely.
And moving away from making devices to creating software powering automobiles.
"We want to make BlackBerry ubiquitous in the auto sector," CEO John Chen said in an interview with CNN shortly before BlackBerry made its first ever trip to the Detroit auto show last year.
Much of the new focus has been around QNX, a core business unit whose technology provides a foundational layer for car entertainment and information systems. BlackBerry first bought QNX in 2010, though it was purchased with a very different use case than for what it was originally intended: to strengthen BlackBerry’s mobile operating system and to serve as the basis for the OS of the BlackBerry tablet (the extremely short-lived PlayBook).
Today, it’s aimed around the car’s infotainment system, but its ambitions are much bigger. BlackBerry is doubling the QNX engineering staff to about 1,000 over the next few years, and is investing $76 million to build a center for self-driving car technology in Ottawa.
“The assumption is that Silicon Valley will be where the self-driving cars emanate from. But we bring expertise to this that no one else has, an extensive line-up of partners that we are committed to growing in 2018 and the best security know-how in the business. We think the conventional wisdom needs to be looking to Canada instead of California.”
And that partner list is, in fact, pretty serious.
QNX already powers infotainment systems for Ford, and BlackBerry has also inked partnership deals with Land Rover, Aptiv, Delphi, Baidu, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Bosch, Magna and Denso (the last three are auto part suppliers; Denso is Toyota’s largest supplier.)
And, with BlackBerry’s latest push at CES last week, it seems the firm is intent on taking those partnerships even further.
Jarvis is a computer program that scans automotive software in order to detect vulnerabilities in the system. The goal is to help automakers resolve those problems before installing that software in their vehicles. Jarvis is designed to scan “reams” of code across the somewhat fragmented supply chain that defines the auto industry, and then to predict and fix any problems it detects.
Chanda noted that Jarvis can find both problems that arise out of unintentional human error and problems that are the work of “malicious actors attempting to infiltrate car systems.”
According to BlackBerry, the software is offered on a pay-as-you-go usage basis, and can be customized for each OEM and their entire software supply chain.
Chanda also said that Jarvis is a “natural complement” for BlackBerry’s QNX Hypervisor system, which was released last year. Hypervisor makes it possible for the OS running the car to effectively quarantine any systems that it finds to be at risk of having been breached, and to then partition applications based on their proximity to critical systems.
“Jarvis prevents security flaws and exploitable bugs from making it into the car at all – and Hypervisor contains a breach in such a way as to minimally impact driver safety,” he explained.
BlackBerry says it has begun Jarvis trials with several major automakers, including Jaguar Land Rover.
So, will automotive software systems be the next great frontier for BlackBerry?
Well, it’s a competitive field. Google, Apple, Toyota, Intel and Tesla all have autonomous car operating systems under development, and all of those players have enjoyed much more recent success in the modern world of mobile than BlackBerry has.
BlackBerry has also had some setbacks in this arena. Mercedes and Toyota were both once counted among their partner firms before they split off to develop their own systems in-house.
But BlackBerry is nothing if not a persistent firm – and its 50+ percent stock price increase over the last 12 months indicates that investors are starting to feel a little bit of that old BlackBerry love again.
What it does seem safe to say at this juncture is that while BlackBerry has a long way to go to capture the lead in this race, it is back to being something it has not been in a long time: an actual competitor for the win.