Canada's automotive R&D 'surging,' despite GM's Oshawa plant closing

Mark Lowey
December 12, 2018

Automotive R&D and innovation in Canada is thriving and will continue expanding despite General Motors’ assembly plant in Oshawa closing, say leading university automotive researchers.

GM Canada will lose assembly line-related R&D and production engineering capacity in Oshawa. But IT firms and car makers including GM are growing their efforts overall in automotive and mobility R&D in the Toronto-Waterloo technology corridor, researchers and other industry players told RE$EARCH MONEY.

“There’s been a real surge in R&D activity," says Ross McKenzie, managing director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research at the University of Waterloo. "In the last 30 to 36 months, there’s been a significant amount of growth, where previously there was little to no activity in the connected and automated (mobility) spaces."

“There have been some really strong investments by both government and industry that have been supporting R&D in Canada in the last couple of years,” says Dr. Justin Gammage, industry liaison specialist at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and manager of the Durham Region’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network site. Globally, R&D is intensifying in three key areas, says the former chief scientist for GM Canada: autonomous vehicles, automotive software and advanced customer-safety features. “Canada is in a great position in terms of its practical skillset, including software and communications capability, to support innovation in those areas,” says Gammage.

Canada's automotive and IT clusters along the Ottawa-Toronto-Waterloo-Windsor corridor. Image provided by Ross McKenzie, managing director of the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research at the University of Waterloo.

Overlapping automotive-IT clusters generate activity

When it comes to the overall automotive R&D and innovation ecosystem, Canada has the only region in North America with overlapping automotive and IT clusters. There are now 10 automotive R&D facilities in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor – seven added just in the last three years, McKenzie says. He and others interviewed by RE$EARCH MONEY pointed to several positive developments:

  • GM in January opened a new Canadian Technical Centre in Markham, where more than 450 engineers and software developers now work – on track to grow to 700 – developing autonomous vehicle software and controls, active safety systems, vehicle dynamics technology and infotainment and connected vehicle technologies.
  • Also in January, Guelph-based auto parts supplier Linamar announced it would spend up to $500 million to develop and produce electrified and connected vehicle technology, and create a dedicated innovation centre focused on AI, machine learning and robotics.
  • GM’s Canadian Technical Centre in Oshawa employees 250 engineers and will remain in operation, as will a cold weather testing site in Kapuskasing, GM says.
  • Toyota in May announced it would open an R&D facility in Kitchener and committed $200 million over the next 10 years to research in Canada.
  • GM’s Urban Mobility Campus, a seven-acre facility to be located at 721 Eastern Avenue in Toronto, is still proceeding and will have up to 200 GM employees. The mobility campus will include R&D facilities, GM vehicle sales and services, including sales of electric vehicles, Maven car-sharing offices, and a “public experience centre featuring innovations in mobility.”
  • Ford last year unveiled a $1.2-billion investment plan to transform its Windsor engine plant, as well as create hundreds of new R&D positions focused on connected and autonomous vehicles.
  • In March of 2017, Ford acquired 400 engineers, including 300 in Canada, from Blackberry, who are now working on automotive R&D in Waterloo, Ottawa and Oakville.
  • GM opened a research facility in Communitech’s innovation hub in Kitchener three years ago.
  • Google, Microsoft, Blackberry, Cisco, Apple and other IT firms are pursuing automotive- and mobility-related R&D in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor.
  • This December, the Innovation Factory in Hamilton launched the $10.5 million Centre for Integrated Transportation and Mobility (CITM) to help local companies develop connected and autonomous vehicle solutions.

Jennifer Wright, GM Canada’s communications director, says once the Oshawa plant is closed and the Markham technical centre is fully staffed, engineers will comprise between 15 to 20% – up from about 3% a year ago – of GM’s more than 5,000 employees in Canada.. “GM selected Canada as a base for future automotive engineering and innovation jobs because Canada has a rich, pro-innovation location with an ecosystem of partners for transformational technology and innovation,” Wright said in an email. Since 2009, GM has invested more than $3.5 billion in its manufacturing operations in Canada, she said.

Says McKenzie: “We are well-positioned to build on our success and continue to grow the level of research on both sides of the equation, within the traditional automotive sector as well as in the emerging converged automotive and mobility space.”

Not all good news for automotive R&D in Ontario

Dr. Peter Frise, professor of mechanical and automotive engineering and director of the Centre for Automotive Research and Education at the University of Windsor, says a substantial amount of the automotive R&D done in Canada is manufacturing-related and done within assembly plants. So the closure of one large assembly plant affects many other jobs directly or indirectly associated with the automotive sector.

“It’s actually one of the largest spin-off effects of any sector of manufacturing,” Frise notes. “Those assembly plant jobs in Oshawa would be responsible for between seven and 10 other jobs in the economy . . . and those will now disappear or be moved elsewhere.” Unifor Local 222, which represents the workers at the Oshawa plant, expects the Durham Region will lose more than 5,000 direct jobs and about 15,000 indirect jobs.

Frise says GM made a business decision to close its Oshawa plant – along with four other plants in the U.S. – because the company has too much manufacturing capacity and declining demand for the sedans made in Oshawa, and new entrants in the marketplace are driving down individual automakers’ market share.


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