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

WASHINGTON — 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.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2021.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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

Just Posted

A cross-country skier glides along the banks of the Ottawa River in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Canadians across the country can look forward to a mild spring peppered with the odd winter flashback throughout the first part of the season, according to predictions from one prominent national forecaster. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Mild spring with some wintry blasts predicted for most of Canada: Weather Network

March will be dramatically warmer through the prairies

A dose of COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at a vaccination clinic in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Feds hoping for AstraZeneca shots this week as Pfizer-BioNTech prepare next delivery

Canada has ordered 24 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine

Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend Sunday Service, in Abbotsford, B.C., Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. A legal advocacy group challenging British Columbia’s COVID-19 restrictions on worship services and public protests is scheduled to be in court today arguing for the church and others that COVID-19 restrictions violate their charter rights. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Churches in court to challenge British Columbia’s COVID-19 health orders

Calgary-based organization says it represents over a dozen individuals and faith communities in the province

A memorial for those killed and injured in a deadly crash involving the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team bus is visible at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 near Tisdale, Sask., on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards
‘More pain:’ Some Broncos families angry over request in court to delay lawsuit

Eleven lawsuits were filed after the crash on April 6, 2018

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped save a missing pet recently. The two dogs have more than 80,000 followers on Twitter. (Contributed photo)
WATCH: Red Deer science dogs help save lost pet

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped rescue a missing pet… Continue reading

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta Premier slams vandalism after slur painted on MLA’s office window

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is condemning alleged vandalism at the… Continue reading

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Machin waits to appear at the Standing Committee on Finance on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. Executives who engage in so-called "vaccine tourism" show both an ethical disregard for those less fortunate and a surprising lack of business acumen, experts argue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine tourism is both unethical and bad for business, experts say

Executives who engage in so-called “vaccine tourism” show both an ethical disregard… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi (13) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Justin Holl (3) battle in front as goalie Jack Campbell (36) makes the save during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, February 27, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
No Matthews, no problem: Minus NHL goal leader, Maple Leafs blank Oilers 4-0

Leafs 4 Oilers 0 EDMONTON — The Maple Leafs knew even with… Continue reading

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Gummed-up bills in House of Commons: harbinger of a federal election?

OTTAWA — All federal party leaders maintain they don’t want an election… Continue reading

The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Pornhub policies reveal legal gaps and lack of enforcement around exploitive videos

OTTAWA — Serena Fleites was in seventh grade when a sexually explicit… Continue reading

Sean Hoskin stands on a neighbourhood street in Halifax on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Hoskin was diagnosed with COVID-19 almost a year ago with symptoms that still persist. Some provinces have established programs to deal with long-term sufferers but Atlantic Canada, with relatively low numbers of patients, has yet to provide a resource to assist them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
On East Coast, exhausted COVID-19 ‘long haulers’ hope specialized clinics will emerge

HALIFAX — On evenings when Sean Hoskin collapses into bed, heart pounding… Continue reading

Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) stands in his crease as Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88), left to right, defenceman Rasmus Andersson (4), Matthew Tkachuk (19), Mikael Backlund (11) and Mark Giordano (5) celebrate a goal during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Calgary Flames beat Ottawa 6-3 to end Senators’ three-game win streak

Flames 6 Senators 3 OTTAWA — The Calgary Flames used a balanced… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

Most Read