Supporters for Unifor, the national union representing auto workers, attend a rally in Windsor, Ont., across from the General Motors headquarters in Detroit on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. GM earned the ire of Canadian auto workers in 2018 by announcing the closure of its assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont. It later resurrected the facility with a $170-million investment to retool it for autonomous vehicles. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Carlos Osorio

Supporters for Unifor, the national union representing auto workers, attend a rally in Windsor, Ont., across from the General Motors headquarters in Detroit on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. GM earned the ire of Canadian auto workers in 2018 by announcing the closure of its assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont. It later resurrected the facility with a $170-million investment to retool it for autonomous vehicles. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Carlos Osorio

How Canada can capitalize on U.S. auto sector’s abrupt pivot to electric vehicles

Canada has both the resources and expertise to get involved

The storied North American automotive industry, the ultimate showcase of Canada’s high-tensile trade ties with the United States, is about to navigate a dramatic hairpin turn.

But as the Big Three veer into the all-electric, autonomous era, some Canadians want to seize the moment and take the wheel.

“There’s a long shadow between the promise and the execution, but all the pieces are there,” says Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association.

“We went from a marriage on the rocks to one that both partners are committed to. It could be the best second chapter ever.”

Volpe is referring specifically to GM, which announced late last month an ambitious plan to convert its entire portfolio of vehicles to an all-electric platform by 2035.

But that decision is just part of a cascading transformation across the industry, with existential ramifications for one of the most tightly integrated cross-border manufacturing and supply-chain relationships in the world.

China is already working hard to become the “source of a new way” to power vehicles, President Joe Biden warned last week.

“We just have to step up.”

Canada has both the resources and expertise to do the same, says Volpe, whose ambitious Project Arrow concept — a homegrown zero-emissions vehicle named for the 1950s-era Avro interceptor jet — is designed to showcase exactly that.

“We’re going to prove to the market, we’re going to prove to the (manufacturers) around the planet, that everything that goes into your zero-emission vehicle can be made or sourced here in Canada,” he says.

“If somebody wants to bring what we did over the line and make 100,000 of them a year, I’ll hand it to them.”

GM earned the ire of Canadian auto workers in 2018 by announcing the closure of its assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont. It later resurrected the facility with a $170-million investment to retool it for autonomous vehicles.

“It was, ‘You closed Oshawa, how dare you?’ And I was one of the ‘How dare you’ people,” Volpe says.

“Well, now that they’ve reopened Oshawa, you sit there and you open your eyes to the commitment that General Motors made.”

Ford, too, has entered the fray, promising $1.8 billion to retool its sprawling landmark facility in Oakville, Ont., to build EVs.

It’s a leap of faith of sorts, considering what market experts say is ongoing consumer doubt about EVs.

“Range anxiety” — the persistent fear of a depleted battery at the side of the road — remains a major concern, even though it’s less of a problem than most people think.

Consulting firm Deloitte Canada, which has been tracking automotive consumer trends for more than a decade, found three-quarters of future EV buyers it surveyed planned to charge their vehicles at home overnight.

“The difference between what is a perceived issue in a consumer’s mind and what is an actual issue is actually quite negligible,” Ryan Robinson, Deloitte’s automotive research leader, says in an interview.

“It’s still an issue, full stop, and that’s something that the industry is going to have to contend with.”

So, too, is price, especially with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic still a long way off. Deloitte’s latest survey, released last month, found 45 per cent of future buyers in Canada hope to spend less than $35,000 — a tall order when most base electric-vehicle models hover between $40,000 and $45,000.

“You put all of that together and there’s still some major challenges that a lot of stakeholders that touch the automotive industry face,” Robinson says.

“It’s not just government, it’s not just automakers, but there are a variety of stakeholders that have a role to play in making sure that Canadians are ready to make the transition over to electric mobility.”

With protectionism no longer a dirty word in the United States and Biden promising to prioritize American workers and suppliers, the Canadian government’s job remains the same as it ever was: making sure the U.S. understands Canada’s mission-critical role in its own economic priorities.

“We’re both going to be better off on both sides of the border, as we have been in the past, if we orient ourselves toward this global competition as one force,” says Gerald Butts, vice-chairman of the political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group and a former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“It served us extraordinarily well in the past … and I have no reason to believe it won’t serve us well in the future.”

Last month, GM announced a billion-dollar plan to build its new all-electric BrightDrop EV600 van in Ingersoll, Ont., at Canada’s first large-scale EV manufacturing plant for delivery vehicles.

That investment, Volpe says, assumes Canada will take the steps necessary to help build a homegrown battery industry out of the country’s rare-earth resources like lithium and cobalt that are waiting to be extracted in northern Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere.

Given that the EV industry is still in his infancy, the free market alone won’t be enough to ensure those resources can be extracted and developed, he says.

“General Motors made a billion-dollar bet on Canada because it’s going to assume that the Canadian government — this one or the next one — is going to commit” to building that business.

Such an investment would pay dividends well beyond the auto sector, considering the federal Liberal government’s commitment to lowering greenhouse gas-emissions and meeting targets set out in the Paris climate accord.

“If you make investments in renewable energy and utility storage using battery technology, you can build an industry at scale that the auto industry can borrow,” Volpe says.

Major manufacturing, retail and office facilities would be able to use that technology to help “shave the peak” off Canada’s GHG emissions and achieve those targets, all the while paving the way for a self-sufficient electric-vehicle industry.

“You’d be investing in the exact same technology you’d use in a car.”

There’s one problem, says Robinson: the lithium-ion batteries on roads right now might not be where the industry ultimately lands.

“We’re not done with with battery technology,” Robinson says. “What you don’t want to do is invest in a technology that is that is rapidly evolving, and could potentially become obsolete going forward.”

Fuel cells — energy-efficient, hydrogen-powered units that work like batteries, but without the need for constant recharging — continue to be part of the conversation, he adds.

“The amount of investment is huge, and you want to be sure that you’re making the right decision, so you don’t find yourself behind the curve just as all that capacity is coming online.”

ALSO READ: B.C. behind on climate goals, sets new 2025 emissions target to stay on track

James McCarten, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Electric vehiclesUSA

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Interior Health reported 43 new COVID-19 cases in the region Feb. 23, 2021 and no additional deaths. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
43 new cases of COVID reported in Interior Health

No new deaths, Williams Lake outbreak over

Black Press file photo.
Interior Health: 6 new deaths and 67 new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend

An outbreak has been declared at Kelowna General Hospital

Anyone with additional information is asked to contact the Castlegar RCMP at 250-365-7721. Photo: Trail Times
Woman charged for allegedly entering Castlegar home and stabbing 2 teens

Castlegar police report the two teenagers are recovering in hospital

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
59 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 7,131

B.C. health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and health minister Adrian Dix wore pink shirts to showcase this year’s motto: “Lift each other up.” (Twitter/PinkShirtDay)
PHOTOS: B.C. celebs take stand against bullying on Pink Shirt Day

‘We need to let young people know they are not alone and they can reach out to others for help’

Average response times for critical “purple” and “red” calls were between nine and 10 minutes Feb. 19 in Metro Vancouver, with only less critical “yellow” calls receiving an average response time of 45 minutes. The longer than usual delay was due to a combination of factors, BC Emergency Health Services said. (APBC image)
After a night of one-hour waits for ambulances, union goes public with concerns

B.C. Ambulance Service says high-priority calls were still 10 minutes or less

NorKam secondary student Karis Wilson in the outfit that got her sent home from school on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (Contributed to Kamloops This Week)
B.C. teen in turtleneck, lace-edged dress sent home from school for ‘inappropriate’ outfit

NorKam secondary student Karis Wilson was told the lace on the garment made it look like a slip dress

Vancouver Canucks left wing Antoine Roussel (26) tries to get a shot past Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) during second period NHL action in Vancouver, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canucks cough up 3-0 lead, fall 4-3 to visiting Edmonton Oilers

Vancouver falls to 8-13-2 on the NHL season

Jessica McCallum-Miller receives her signed oath of office from city chief administrative officer Heather Avison on Nov. 5, 2018 after being elected to Terrace City Council. McCallum-Miller resigned on Feb. 22, 2021, saying she felt unsupported and unheard by council. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Terrace’s 1st Indigenous councillor resigns citing ‘systemic and internalized racism,’ sexism

McCallum-Miller said in a Facebook post she felt unheard and unsupported by council

Temporary changes to allow for wholesale pricing for the hospitality industry were implemented June 2020 and set to expire March 31.	(Pixabay photo)
Pubs, restaurants to pay wholesale prices on liquor permanently in COVID-recovery

Pre-pandemic, restaurateurs and tourism operators paid full retail price on most liquor purchases

Wade Dyck with Luna, a dog who went missing near the Chasm for 17 days following a rollover on Feb. 5. (Photo submitted).
Dog missing for 17 days through cold snap reunited with owner in northern B.C.

Family ecstatic to have the Pyrenees-Shepherd cross back home.

Quesnel RCMP confirmed they are investigating a residential break-in at a home on the Barkerville Highway. (File image)
Thieves make off with $300K in Cariboo miner’s retirement gold

Tim Klemen is offering a reward for the return of his gold

Most Read