Out with the old tech, in with the new.

In April, construction crews began stripping down an old laboratory tucked among the engineering buildings on the University of Waterloo campus.

They are creating a research facility with three different labs, or cells, working toward a common objective: smarter, more energy-efficient automobiles, with reduced emissions.

Funding for the $10-million Green and Intelligent Automotive (GAIA) research facility started with an initial $1-million contribution from Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC), along with federal and provincial government support of $2.1 million each, from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund Research Infrastructure programs.

“If you’re serious about doing work in the electrification of a vehicle, this is everybody’s dream facility,” says John McPhee, the project’s lead researcher.

A professor in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, McPhee is the Canada Research Chair in System Dynamics.

McPhee and his team looking inside a car

Credit: NSERC

Sit back and enjoy the drive

Late-model cars offer a glimpse of where automotive technology is headed. In addition to running on electricity, fuel or a combination of both, cars in the near future will “think.”

They will have advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Vehicles will wirelessly tune into information about road and traffic conditions, and take corrective action with or without the participation of the driver.

Waterloo already has strong credentials as an automotive innovator through the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR), a leading North American automotive-academic collaboration. The GAIA research facility builds on that by housing:

  • A vehicle test cell with a chassis dynamometer — basically a treadmill for cars. Researchers will measure such things as the output of exhaust and the performance of new radar sensors;
  • A battery test cell that transfers energy to and from the local electrical grid. Automakers need long-distance batteries if they expect drivers to get over their “range anxiety” with electric vehicles. One major quest: The best way to capture energy expended in braking and store it as electricity;
  • A powertrain test cell. Researchers will evaluate engines, motors, hybrid powertrains and transmissions, seeking to improve the efficient transfer of power to drive the wheels;
  • A 40-node radio frequency (RF) sensor network, providing connectivity and monitoring across all three GAIA laboratories.

GAIA research involves chemical, electrical, mechanical and systems design engineering professors. The facility can be configured to conduct confidential projects simultaneously, or arranged for collaboration.

Construction is on track for completion in August, followed by the installation and commissioning of $5 million in equipment for the three labs.

Each cell can operate independently, but the best results are expected to come when the units tackle something together.

So, in the world of driving, where does all of this lead?

McPhee sees a day when cars will burn no fossil fuels, emit no emissions and connect tightly with that vast pool of information known as the Internet of Things.

“These cars will be highly intelligent and self-driving,’’ he said. “They will plan out your optimal route, taking into account traffic conditions, road construction, geography, weather and road conditions — and the shopping you need to do on your way home from work.”

“During the trip, the passengers can enjoy a cappuccino and a good movie.”