GM's move to electric vehicles presents opportunities for local industry

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell

Local automotive officials and researchers are calling General Motors transition into an electric and autonomous vehicle manufacturer a turning point in the North American industry that’ll create exciting opportunities for local automotive suppliers.

“I think 20 years from now we’ll look back at this week and say that’s the moment that resources really shifted to EV and AV vehicles,” said Shelley Fellows, vice-president of operations for Radix Inc.

“GM is the biggest car manufacturer in North America. They usually set trends.

“When I think of what’s coming, the opportunities are so exciting.”

For automotive companies in Southwestern Ontario, the question becomes one of adjusting to an industry that’s going to completely change to a multi-energy platform. Even traditional parts like headlights, tires and bumpers are going to become ‘smart parts’ loaded with sensors, radar and cameras.

“Our local automotive industry is well positioned to take advantage of this sea change,” Fellows said. “We’re well located on the border and well connected.

“We’ve always had innovate and change with the industry otherwise we go under. I expect this area to come through this very successfully.”

Ziad Kobti, president of the Canadian Artificial Intelligence Society, emphasized cars have become mobile data gathering machines.

General Motors’ move to pour billions of dollars into producing electric and autonomous vehicles is only going to accelerate that process of change.

“Right now the sensors and technology in smart cars are expensive, because the parts are still largely custom-made,” said Kobti, who is also dean of the computer science faculty at the University of Windsor.

“As auto companies invest more heavily in these new designs, the smart parts in cars needed for autonomous vehicles will be less costly and better quality. It’ll require precision manufacturing and innovation.

“That’s what this area does very well.”

Kobti said it’s understandable that there’s a fear of technology’s impact on employment levels. However, he terms the impending changes as more job shifts than losses.

“It’ll be different work and will require a different skillset,” Kobti said. “There’s also an intense need already to fill those jobs.”

Kobti said his best advice to local industry is to invest in innovation, education and research partners. He said industry is already scooping up Windsor’s graduates in software development and data scientists as quickly as the university can hand them their degree.

“Our industry needs to keep our talent here to remain competitive,” Kobti said.

“The collaboration between industry, academics and government is the formula for getting ideas from the lab to the shop floor as quickly as possible.

“Speed is now the difference between being competitive and being out of business.”

While the automotive industry is racing into the future on the crest of a technological wave, Essex MP Tracey Ramsey (NDP-Essex) feels government needs to do more.

“In the short-term, we need to come out with something stronger for Oshawa,” said Ramsey, vice-chair of the International Trade Committee.

“Keeping that plant should remain the focus right now.”

In the long term, Ramsey said an obvious starting point for government is to craft a national auto strategy.

In her opinion, the piecemeal approach now being taken will continue to result in the slow bleeding away of the auto industry.

“We need a more collaborative approach with all the voices at the table,” said Ramsey, who was in Washington D.C. Wednesday discussing trade, tariffs and auto issues with U.S. congressional representatives.

Ramsey added increasing funding for research and development, retraining and putting more focus on skilled trades is also required.

“The other part of this is trade,” Ramsey said. “The USMCA was supposed to protect against more work going to Mexico. I don’t think it’ll work.

“We’re still seeing plants close in Canada and the U.S. but not Mexico."

Fellows added local companies must also look beyond their traditional markets.

“I think looking beyond our borders is going to be a requirement to grow your business,” Fellows said. “We have to look more to export markets and many are already doing that because the auto industry is so global.”

Fellows added North America is merely catching up to something that’s already well underway in Europe.

“North America is like an island of internal combustion engines where the rest of the world is adopting other powertrain systems,” Fellows said. “We’re lagging significantly behind Europe.

“We have to remember, these are big companies making big investments, so when they make changes its not a nuanced thing.”