AUTO21 winding down at end of March, despite best efforts of CEO

Despite the best efforts of the Windsor organizers, the automotive research group AUTO21 is winding down and will shut it doors at the end of March.

CEO Peter Frise says government is missing opportunities to be internationally competitive

Despite Peter Frise's best efforts, he says AUTO21 will wind down by the end of March. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Despite the best efforts of the Windsor organizers, the automotive research group AUTO21 is winding down and will shut it doors at the end of March. 

Research and development 

The group involves a network of 50 universities doing research across Canada, including Queen's, the University of British Columbia, the University of Waterloo. It is co-ordinated from the University of Windsor. 

That group partnered with the major automakers, including General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota. 

"It's kind of bittersweet," said Peter Frise, AUTO21's founder and director. "It took an enormous effort by many, many people to set this all up, operate it responsibly for 15 years. It's a big asset for Canada. Now we're pulling the plug on it, on purpose, while the organization is still healthy, still working well, and it's frustrating. But, those are the rules."

"We had built relationships that worked really well, and continue to work really well," Frise said. "Those relationships were strong and healthy and productive for both sides. [It] was healthy, effective, efficient. It didn't seem to matter." 

No more funding

The program was eligible for two seven-year cycles of federal funding through the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence program, and no more, regardless of the success or failure of the programs themselves. 

The Conservative government did not make an exception. Frise told CBC News the new Liberal government will not renew funding, either. 

"There were discussions ... we had informal discussions on several different levels, we spoke to officials, political and civil service," said Frise. "Really, there was no thought to change the rules. They apply the same set of rules to organizations across a wide range of sectors including health care, forest management, telecommunications. They seem to lump us in with them." 

According to Frise, one of the discussions took place at the Canadian Automotive Partnership Council (CAPC) meeting in Detroit in January 2016 where he spoke with the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.  

In an email to CBC News, the ministry stated, "AUTO21 is no longer eligible to receiving funding from the NCE program; however, members of the AUTO21 network are free to seek funding from other sources, including funding available through other programs offered by the federal granting agencies."  

It also noted the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) invested $31.1 million in automotive projects through Collaborative Research and Development Grants, Strategic Partnership Grants, and the Industrial Research Chairs program." 

Falling behind

The winding down of AUTO21 is an indication to Frise that Canada could be doing a better job at getting globally competitive. 

"It's not that we're not investing enough. We're not investing wisely," he told CBC News. "We start things up and shut them down, whether they do well or badly."

"Other countries have changed their approach, adopted more informed and enlightened approaches, and more energetic approaches, and they're doing better than we are," he said.

AUTO21 by the numbers

  • 2000 students trained
  • 100s of professors
  • 58 universities
  • 300+ external companies
  • 25-30 projects funded at rate of $750,000