Ambitious project aims to produce Canada’s first zero-emissions car. Will it work?
Thursday, March 18, 2021
The Toronto Star/Jacob Lorinc
Project Arrow, an initiative of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, aims to create Canada’s first zero-emissions vehicle. It is named after a colossal failure. And that’s no accident.
It’s eponym, the Avro Arrow, was a sleek fighter jet, touted as a feat of Canadian ingenuity before it was abruptly cancelled in 1959 by then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, for vague reasons apparently relating largely to cost and lack of demand.
The story became embedded in the national psyche as another example of lost opportunity and squandered potential.
Remember, the project’s founder says, the Avro Arrow flew twice as fast and twice as high as anyone else. The project’s spirit of innovation outlived the project, itself.
“With our team, we can make something just as innovative,” he told the Star.
Project Arrow is Canada’s first swing at an energy-friendly, all-Canadian-made vehicle. Spearheaded by the APMA and with the backing of the provincial and federal government, the initiative aims to sell Canada’s auto-parts savvy to the world and capitalize on an industry-wide pivot from gas-guzzling to battery-powered cars.
Not in a century has North America seen a disruption in the automotive industry such as the one happening now. The Big Three, U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, are all steering into the all-electric, autonomous era at once.
Tesla, which produces its own electirc cars, is expanding its operations vastly, to produce lithium batteries to fuel energy-efficient cars for consumers. And there are others doing this.
Project Arrow enlisted the help of several Canadian post-secondary schools, to help engineer and design the vehicle, and has enlisted companies spanning several levels of the supply chain to help assemble it. The substances for the battery technology will come from Quebec’s mines in Val d’Or and Madawaska, Volpe says. The artificial intelligence and machine-learning components will be developed by companies in Montreal and Quebec City.
The hope is that budding Canadian startups will use the Project Arrow vehicle design to manufacture zero-emissions cars of their own, Volpe says.
“There’s never been a bigger opportunity for a new entrant, in the history of the automotive game,” said Volpe.
In the global automotive industry, Canada is not really known for its engineering prowess. It’s the ninth-largest auto-producing nation, and the fourth-largest auto exporter. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the development ability of the U.S. or Japan or Germany.
With the advent of the electric vehicle, Canadian manufacturers are hoping to carve out a larger space in the industry.
Alexandre Milovanoff, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto studying civil and mineral engineering, says Canada needs to begin developing and manufacturing electric vehicles now if it wants a place in the burgeoning industry.
“If we wait, it’s going to be too late to catch up,” he said.
Already, countries around the world are pouring investments into lithium-battery manufacturers and mining. China, the global producer of the batteries, produces 73 per cent of lithium annually, Milovanoff says. It’s closest competitor is the U.S., which produces 12 per cent.
To compete, Canada needs to invest heavily across the supply chain, from car manufacturing to nickel and lithium mining, Milovanoff says.
“While a country like China can rely on its local supply chains, (we should) note that the U.S. doesn’t have as many resources; it doesn’t have much cobalt, much lithium. That’s an opportunity for Canada,” Milovanoff said.
In January, GM announced a billion-dollar plan to build its new all-electric van in Ingersoll, Ont., the location of Canada’s first large-scale electric vehicle manufacturing plant for delivery vehicles.
Volpe says he hopes the investment will allow Canada to begin building a homegrown battery industry out of the country’s rare-earth resources.
Other obstacles hinder the dominance of the low-emissions vehicle. Consumers remain skeptical of the quality and cost of the vehicles. A recent survey conducted by Deloitte found that 45 per cent of future buyers in Canada hope to spend less than $35,000 on a low-emissions vehicle, still out of reach as most models range between $40,000 and $60,000.
Deloittee found that “range anxiety,” the fear a car’s battery may run out of charge while the driver is commuting, remains a persistent anxiety among prospective buyers.
He hopes Canadian-made vehicles will be there to welcome them.
“Canadian entities can find space in this market,” Volpe says. “There’s no reason the legacy of project Arrow isn’t four or five Canadian startups producing these vehicles.”