Public health measures to restrain the coronavirus pandemic have been brutal to many industries and the people who work in them — tourism and restaurants being perhaps the most obvious examples.
But recently, and unrelated to the coronavirus, there has been an anticipated run of good news for an industry that is a major employer in Ontario. A little more than two years after General Motors shut down a century of production in Oshawa, billions of dollars in new investments have been announced. And while they included a restart for pickup trucks in Oshawa, most of the new money will set Canada’s car industry onto an electric path.
In Oakville, Ford has committed to spend about 1.8 billion Canadian dollars to produce five battery-powered car models in four years. Stellantis, the new corporate parent of Chrysler, has set aside 1.5 billion dollars to create an electric vehicle in the province. Most recently, General Motors surprised the industry by announcing that it will spend 1 billion dollars to add fully electric delivery vans to the production at its plant in Ingersoll. The first of those trucks will roll out in November.
And last month, G.M. announced that fossil-fuel-fired engines would disappear from under the hoods of its cars by 2035.
Despite all of the attention paid to Tesla, the manufacturer that has come to define electric motoring, and the growing production of electric vehicles from other makers, electric cars are still very much a niche product. Including plug-in hybrids, they accounted for just 3.3 percent of light vehicle sales last year in Canada.
[Read: Electric Cars, Cool. But When?]
Only three electric vehicles are currently made in Canada: a Toyota hybrid S.U.V., a hybrid from Lexus and a plug-in hybrid Chrysler minivan. None of them are completely fuel free.
Ray Tanguay, a former adviser to the Ontario and federal governments on the auto industry, told me that he thought a key to establishing a viable electric vehicle industry was focusing on things like G.M.’s delivery vans, electric buses and other kinds of commercial vehicles.
There’s a compelling economic case for making those vehicles electric quickly, he said. And things that make consumers hesitate about buying electric cars right now — like how far they can go on the highway without recharging or a relative lack of recharging stations — aren’t issues for commercial operators. Delivery vans on runs within cities aren’t likely to exceed their battery range, and large companies like Federal Express, the initial customer for G.M.’s van, can easily install chargers at their garages.
But investment in assembly plants is just part of maintaining auto industry jobs, Mr. Tanguay cautioned.
“The challenge for us in Canada is how to develop the supply chain for major components like batteries, electric motors, control unit and wiring harnesses,” said Mr. Tanguay, the former chairman and president of Toyota’s manufacturing operations in Canada. “These are kind of major components that go into electric vehicles.”
One major focus for all carmakers right now is improving batteries and increasing their production. In that regard, Canada may have some advantages.
Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla who attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and whose mother was born in Saskatchewan, has never publicly indicated any interest in opening a factory in Canada. But Tesla is working with a group of scientists at Dalhousie University in Halifax to develop battery cells with a million-mile life span. Hydro Quebec’s research division is also one of the world’s leading battery research institutes.
Canada has also been a leader in the development of hydrogen fuel cells, which may challenge batteries for supremacy in the world of zero-emission vehicles through Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems.
When it comes to making batteries, Mr. Tanguay said that the abundant supply of clean electricity in much of Canada might give it an advantage over places like China that still rely on coal and fossil-fuel power generation.
“If you’re going to make things like batteries, it’s important to be able to claim that they have zero emissions from cradle to grave,” he said.
As has long been the case with the auto industry, government money is involved. Ford’s plan is receiving 295 million Canadian dollars from both the federal and Ontario governments. During the announcement late last fall, Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier, renounced his past opposition to electric vehicles.
Mr. Tanguay said that the recent announcements had made him much more confident about the Canadian auto industry’s future even if it still faces challenges.
“At one point it was questionable whether Canada was going to be a major player in zero-emission vehicles,” he said. “Now we see Canada is going to be very much a major player in that field.”
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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.