A General Motors plant in Ingersoll, Ont., has been converted into an assembly line for electric delivery vans, making it the first full-scale electric vehicle-making facility in Canada.
The first BrightDrop Zevo 600 rolled off the line at the CAMI plant on Monday, marking the reopening of the facility that was temporarily shuttered in May in order to retool itself from making internal combustion engines into one that builds electric vehicles.
"We are fully committed to an all-electric future," GM Canada president Marissa West told CBC News in an interview. "We're seeing a really high customer demand."
Representatives of the provincial and federal governments, which each kicked in $259 million to help the automaker upgrade the facility, were on hand for a media event commemorating the opening. The total price tag for the GM's upgrades to its facilities in Ontario in Ingersoll and Oshawa was $2 billion, GM has said previously.
BrightDrop is a unit of GM that focuses on building delivery vehicles for commercial customers, not passengers. Prior to the CAMI upgrading, GM made the BrightDrop vans on a very limited basis at another facility in Michigan.
Similarly, other electric vehicles have been made on a limited basis in Canada, but nothing on the scale of what GM has planned with the BrightDrop launch.
Banking on electric future
After decades as a key hub in the North American auto industry, Canada's status as a car-making powerhouse has slipped in recent years, as the major car companies have slowly cut back production at facilities scattered across southern Ontario.
The last round of union negotiations in late 2020, however, made it clear that both sides see the industry's future is electric, and Monday's unveiling is likely the first in what's set to be a long line of Canadian-made EVs.
"We really believe that we're at an inflection point where EVs are becoming much more mainstream," West said.
Though niche right now, electric vehicles are taking up more and more space on Canadian roads. Up to five per cent of all vehicles in Canada are either fully electric or hybrid, and that ratio is expected to increase in the coming years.
By 2035, the government insists that all new vehicles in Canada will be electric, an ambitious target for a little over 12 years from now, but Monday's announcement brings that one step closer.
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According to West, GM has a similar timeline for its operations around the world, with the company forecasting its entire global fleet to be free of tailpipe emissions by 2035.
Jacquie Richards, the quality launch manager at the facility, says the future is now, when it comes to electric vehicles.
The vehicle itself, the BrightDrop Zevo 600, will be used primarily by commercial customers including FedEx, Walmart, DHL, Verizon and others.
"I'm excited to see this vehicle we're making delivering packages in our neighbourhood," Richards said.
Production will start slow, with just a few thousand vehicles annually, but that's expected to ramp up to 50,000 at year by 2025.
After a rough few years for the industry, Mike Van Boekel, chair of Unifor Local 88, which represents the plant's hourly workers, said it's nice to be positive about the future again.
He said roughly 700 people who were employed at the CAMI facility have voluntarily retired in the past two years, but the new work means anyone who had a job there before who wants one now can have one.
The plant was idled in May for the refurbishment, but as of Monday, there were about 400 workers on the line — with maybe more to come.
"We'll actually have to hire for the third shift, which is good news for people looking for work as well," he told CBC News. If that happens, there could be as many as 1,600 people working at the CAMI plant by the end of next year.
With the GM news and other initiatives about critical mineral mines and battery facilities, Canada's automotive sector is pinning its hopes on the future on electrification, and automotive consultant Sam Fiorani says that's a smart move.
Countries like Norway and others are well ahead of North America in terms of electric vehicle adoption, but consumer appetite is growing, the founder of Auto Forecast Solutions said.
"The U.S. Canada, and much of the rest of the world are going to be behind them. But we'll get there over the next 20 years."
A big problem facing the industry for now isn't demand, but supply. "Supply of vehicles has been so tight that dealers can offer whatever they want," he said. "I've walked into dealerships where they tack $5,000 onto the list price of a car; it's just outrageous at the moment."
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But as inventories slowly build up, there will be more and more vehicles for consumers in the key price range of $20,000 to $40,000, which is when things will really take off. And Fiorani says Canada is poised to make more than its fair share of them.
"With the market in the U.S. moving very rapidly toward EVs, the Canadian industry will be really well-situated for providing a lot of vehicles for the U.S.," he said. "They're well-positioned to get more than their share. I think Mexico might be behind at the moment."
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