How Canada is quietly retooling its auto industry

Source: Canada Auto News

General Motors’ tech centre in Markham, Ont., is at the forefront of the automaker’s shift to high-tech research and development from traditional manufacturing.

Factory closures and job cuts get the headlines, but technology is driving an evolution of Canada’s auto sector as employers compete for highly skilled workers to support expanding research-and-development efforts into the car of the future. 

“We are interviewing every day,” said Sara LeBlanc, director of General Motors’ three Canadian tech centres, which routinely have 30-plus open positions. 

General Motors needs specialists in active-safety and driver-assist technology. Ford is looking for software developers for its “rapidly growing” vehicle-analytics framework. 

GM Canada has hired about 700 of a planned 1,000 tech specialists, mainly for its new Markham Technical Centre near Toronto that develops infotainment and autonomous-driving systems.

Ford has announced its Connectivity and Innovation Centre in Ottawa has 500 tech employees, with more hiring expected. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles which plans to end the third shift at its Windsor, Ont., minivan plant — affecting 1,500 workers — employs 180 at its Automotive Research and Development Centre in the city.

HIGH-TECH CLUSTER

Smaller tech firms that have entered the transportation space are also playing key roles in the auto sector’s only growth area. 

Like Canada’s tech-heavy universities, these companies and the public and private networks that support them have caught the attention of automakers seeking talent and ideas.

“In Toronto, there’s an amazing ecosystem where you have a lot of start-ups and incubators and accelerators. They also work with us to bring a lot of the advancements that we’re developing,” LeBlanc told Automotive News Canada

MANUFACTURING CRITICAL 

But a February study published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives warned that proximity to traditional manufacturing is key to the growth of r&d. 

GM’s LeBlanc, however, said there are more steps between lab and assembly line as the industry becomes more complex. 

She pointed to the autonomous test circuit slated for Oshawa where made-in-Canada software can be quickly validated on pre-production vehicles. 

“In my mind, that’s a bigger enabler [than proximity to plants] to development,” she said.

At Ford Canada, CEO Dean Stoneley said the automaker is looking to expand its r&d footprint while maintaining its manufacturing centres. 

“The two aren’t related in the sense one grows and the other shrinks,” he said. “They’re different, but equally important parts of our business. 

“What they [r&d centres] are doing is setting up this connected-car ecosystem … and we’re looking to grow that.”