GM plan to hire up to 1,000 engineers in Canada a major boost for self-driving car's future

It's been a long time since Ontario's beleaguered auto industry got some good news. But General Motors announced today it is boosting the number of research and development workers by hiring up to 1,000 engineers in Canada. Here are three big reasons GM's job news is an important announcement.

Driverless cars now a lot closer to reality after Canada's biggest auto deal in a decade

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne pose as they plug in a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt electric car at the announcement in Oshawa on Friday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

It's been a long time since Ontario's beleaguered auto industry got some good news. And even the good news has been tempered by the lousy trend lines in an industry with a shrinking footprint in Canada.

But GM announced today it is substantially boosting the number of research and development workers by bringing the number of software engineers it employs in Canada to 1,000. They'll be tasked with developing the company's software for self-driving, autonomous connected cars.

The news that first trickled out earlier this week was made official at GM's Canadian Technical Centre in Oshawa, Ont., on Friday when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne drove into the facility in an all-electric Chevy Bolt, a clear symbol of the direction the industry is headed.

The cars they help design may be the vehicles of the future, but "there's nothing theoretical about this," said GM Canada's president, Stephen Carlisle.

Most of the jobs will be split between existing facilities in Oshawa, Markham and Waterloo, Ont., but the company will also spend $10 million to expand its cold-weather-testing facility in Kapuskasing, Ont.

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No, it's not a commitment to build any new cars here, and no, it doesn't answer important questions about the fate of GM's assembly lines (one of which is scheduled to close next year). But it's a glimmer of hope for the future. And here are three big reasons Friday's job news is an important announcement.

1. It's the biggest auto jobs deal in a decade

Last year, GM announced it would hire 100 engineers in Oshawa. It was welcome news to a sector more used to layoffs than hires. But even that would only bring their total number of engineers to 300, which can only accomplish so much.

But Friday's news takes that toehold to a full grown footprint.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturing Association, says: "1,000 engineers is a centre of excellence. It means you're confident in the jurisdiction. It means GM is putting their money where their mouth is." 

Volpe says this is the biggest auto sector announcement since Toyota decided to put a plant in Woodstock, Ont., in 2005.

"This is focused on the high value stream. It shows that Ontario and Canada have resumed a prime spot in the GM mindset."

Trudeau agreed with that assessment, saying, "In choosing Canada to be the home base for a global centre for software, GM is conforming the skills and ingenuity and inner potential for Canada's workers."

"It's a perfect fit in so many ways and I'm really glad that GM saw it that way too," the prime minister said.

2. It's the technology of the future

For years, Ontarians have wondered what will become of the auto industry. What will happen to the assembly plant in Oshawa after the Camaro runs its course? 

The answer is high tech, high value cars. Ontario's plants can't compete with Mexico's low costs. So, the Canadian industry has tried to carve out a niche around high value vehicles equipped with the latest technology.

The GM announcement is proof that strategy is (to an extent at least) working. Some of the best and most ubiquitous software in connected and driverless cars comes from BlackBerry offshoot QNX, based in Waterloo.

GM confirmed Friday it is adding 1,000 new engineer positions in the next few years, including several hundred in Oshawa, Ont. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

There are at least 100 other firms involved in the industry and Ontario has introduced a pilot project that would allow driverless cars on the province's roads.

The announcement also means GM has confidence Ontario has the capacity to produce this many engineers, competing at the sharpest end of the technology beat. GM isn't just competing with traditional car companies in this field. It's facing down Google, Tesla, Apple and other giants of Silicon Valley.

Friday's news is a step closer to taking those ideas closer to reality, and making the rubber hit the road.

As Jessica Vomiero, a tech writer for put in in an interview this week, "I'm expecting them to deliver a fleet of self driving cars by 2017."

3. Canada's car future is at stake

All of this happens under the cloud of an enormously important round of negotiations set to take place this summer. GM and Unifor, the union representing thousands of assembly plant workers, will have to hammer out a new contract. One of GM's Oshawa plants is set to close in 2017. Its other main Oshawa assemby plant still doesn't have any vehicles allocated to it.

Trade agreements loom as well. The Trans Pacific Partnership was signed last year. But it has not yet been ratified — and may never be. The future of that deal will help define how Canada's auto sector moves forward.

But above all else, the industry is changing at breakneck speeds. And Vomiero says, these new GM engineering jobs shed light on the direction the industry is going in this province.

"I think they're going to be changing the face of what it means to be employed by an auto company in Ontario," she told CBC News.


Senior Business reporter for CBC News. A former host of On the Money and World Report on CBC Radio, Peter Armstrong has been a foreign correspondent and parliamentary reporter for CBC. Subscribe to Peter's newsletter here: Twitter: @armstrongcbc