A highway with connected and autonomous vehicles as seen from the University of Windsor’s SHIELD Automotive Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence.

University of Windsor’s SHIELD Automotive Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence is innovating to protect connected and autonomous vehicles

With the recent surge in the development of driverless and autonomous vehicles, cybersecurity has become a top priority for automakers, OEMs and their customers around the globe. The province of Ontario has assumed a dominant leadership role in the cybersecurity space and is well positioned to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to protecting connected cars.

Ontario’s University of Windsor now hosts North America’s first organization dedicated to countering threats in the connected transportation sector—the SHIELD Automotive Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence.

Located in the heart of Ontario’s automotive sector, SHIELD is doing innovative research, education, training and knowledge transfer in the automotive cybersecurity sector. Their primary goal is to ensure that the vehicles of today and tomorrow are safe and secure.

While elements like keyless entry and power steering might seem like average features, the reality is that they’re vulnerable to threat. Nearly every system in today’s vehicles, including steering, brakes and the engine itself, is monitored and controlled by computers.

A modern vehicle has more lines of code than a 747 jet. Yet, automotive cybersecurity is still a relatively new sector, rapidly evolving to keep up with the industry’s fast-paced technological improvements and a growing number of cyber events.

We have the whole package of the automotive industry in Ontario. The drive is here, [and the province has] the talent.

– SHIELD co-founder and co-director Dr. Mitra Mirhassani

“We’re thinking about the product of the vehicle itself—the software and hardware. We want to make sure everything is secure from the design stage,” says co-founder and co-director of SHIELD, Dr. Ikjot Saini. “We try to create awareness and educate on these [security] issues.”

Windsor, Ontario: a global automotive epicentre

Part of what makes SHIELD such a success is its placement as part of the University of Windsor. The city of Windsor is known as the automotive capital of Canada—seeing billions of dollars in recent investments, including for Ventra’s electric vehicle battery innovation lab and the future location of LG and Stellantis’ battery manufacturing megasite.

Windsor is home to the country’s largest automotive cluster. Automotive businesses in the region are located strategically in the decision-making and technology centre of the global automotive industry.

Because of this concentration of knowledge and experience, Windsor has a wealth of talent in the industry, lending an advantage to SHIELD’s innovative research. “This area is full of talent and ideas when it comes to automobility,” says Mirhassani. “A decade ago, it was mostly automotive part manufacturing. More and more now, the workers have expertise in electronics and information technology…there is a huge talent pool here.”

SHIELD co-founder and co-director Dr. Ikjot Saini
Co-founder and co-director of SHIELD,
Dr. Ikjot Saini

That access to leading experts gives SHIELD an insider’s look at the business side of their research, ensuring that what they do is relevant and applicable. “There’s a willingness of faculty and researchers to work with industry partners and understand the complexities and challenges they’re facing in their businesses,” says Tom Schnekenburger, Project Manager in the Office of Research and Innovation Services at the university.

And SHIELD wants to ensure that Ontario remains a great place for innovation in the vehicle industry. “We are really great at automotive here,” says Saini, “If we’re going to be living in a world with software-defined vehicles, we need to make sure the tech we put in them is safe from scratch.”

Within the full spectrum of the auto industry, Ontario has the assembly lines, the experience and the talent—and SHIELD is here to help drive security innovation.

Unparalleled research and education landscape

SHIELD wants to help the public understand how important the issue of automotive cybersecurity is. And, as part of a university setting, training the next generation is a top priority.

The centre is made up of professors and students ranging from undergraduate to postgraduate studies. “We have very talented students in our centre,” says Mirhassani. “Sometimes I wonder how I was fortunate enough to find them. I’m very proud of the students we work with.”

Students working together at SHIELD

Through its research and education efforts, SHIELD has been recognized internationally for its contribution to automotive cybersecurity. “We’ve spoken at many panels and sessions within Canada and internationally,” says Saini. SHIELD was asked to represent Canada in Germany and India recently, as international leader in automotive security.

“We have a group willing to be bold,” says Schnekenburger. “To see the university at the top of those conversations means a lot from a reputation perspective, but also to attract more leaders to the space from an economic development perspective, to help us bring more companies to Ontario.”

Because of their connections to OEMs and manufacturers, the centre also provides custom-designed educational courses to industry partners to raise awareness and help ensure Ontario and Canada’s automotive sector is at the forefront of an international mindset shift.

Creating global impact

Because automotive technology is evolving so quickly, cybersecurity conversations are taking place globally, and international regulations have began to reflect these concerns. SHIELD is helping to ensure Ontario’s automotive sector is among those, leading the changes as they happen.

“New standards are coming,” says Mirhassani. For this reason, SHIELD works with international partners in the academic and for-profit fields. “it’s a new field, and only a few experts exist,” says Saini. “We come together to identify the overlaps, understand different countries’ regulations and standards and address international supply chain issues.”

Another reason to have these conversations stemming from Ontario and out into the world is because cybersecurity has no borders. “There’s no firewall between Canada and Europe that will stop someone from hacking a vehicle,” says Schnekenburger. Having that international communication and being open to new frameworks is an important step in Ontario being part of the larger, global solution.

Work being performed at SHIELD

Ontario has the research and the talent, the infrastructure and the experience. Investing in innovations that will make a difference to an entire industry is the beginning of drawing new companies, new facilities and an entrepreneurial spirit that will put Canada among the early adopters of automobility cybersecurity.

“We have the whole package of the automotive industry in Ontario. The drive is here. We have the talent,” says Mirhassani, sharing her spirited outlook on an internationally collaborative future starting from SHIELD’s home in Ontario, Canada.

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