How Canada can turn climate change outrage into an e-vehicle opportunity

The global shortage of skills needed to design and build alternative-energy vehicles is a huge economic opportunity for Canada, writes Randy Zadra.

Global skills shortage around alternative-energy vehicles presents huge potential for domestic economy

Channelling the concern about climate change into ways to learn the new skills and trades associated with building e-vehicles would help tackle the problem and boost Canada's economy. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Randy Zadra, a senior advisor and Canadian ambassador to the World Manufacturing Forum (WMF). He has worked in senior management roles at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the MIT Media Lab in Boston, Teleglobe, and BCE Inc. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Millions of people across the globe, from Sydney to Dhaka to Montreal, marched last fall demanding action on climate change, led by a global youth movement which paralleled the powerful social activism of the '60s.

Yet when we consider the interest among youth in studying and learning the new skills and trades associated with building e-vehicles to help tackle factors contributing to climate change, the picture is paradoxically different.

There is a skills shortage globally for people such as electric power-train designers, battery cell engineers, and power-electronics trades for smart vehicles.

It's a problem, but it also represents an opportunity for Canada.

The new transportation lexicon includes the term ACES – autonomous, connected, electric, and shared.

A future based on ACES requires specialized expertise in automotive engineering, battery fabrication, and chemistry for cell production, combined with computer and software design. This was highlighted at the recent World Manufacturing Forum and in its annual report, which focused on skills needed for the future of manufacturing.

Some auto manufacturers are already making huge investments in hybrid and e-vehicle plants. (General Motors)

The speed at which technology disrupts companies often catches management, politicians and workers by surprise. While governments haggle over carbon-neutral targets, some automotive manufacturers are already redirecting vast amounts of capital in a race to restructure and convert traditional factories to hybrid and e-vehicle plants.

Volkswagen AG, for example, has pledged $34 billion US for an all-electric car line up. Ford will significantly increase investments in electric vehicles to $11 billion by 2022, with plans to have 40 hybrid and fully electric vehicles in its model lineup.

These companies see huge potential in the electric vehicle market. The cost of producing an e-vehicle is expected to fall below that of traditional gasoline-powered models by 2022.

From a buyer's perspective, using electricity instead of gasoline also promises a savings of thousands of dollars over the life of the vehicle. And they will be cheaper to operate as there are fewer parts needing maintenance and repair, making them a compelling consumer choice even without subsidies.

But the shortage of new and innovative skills associated with the manufacturing opportunities of e-vehicles needs to be addressed in order to make this change happen.

And while consumer vehicles have received the majority of the attention, there is also a second opportunity for Canada. It focuses on making the public- and fleet-transportation systems cleaner and more efficient.

That's also going to require innovative business models, and a new generation of workers and leaders who are trained in the production of such vehicles.

There's growing demand to make public- and fleet-transportation systems cleaner and more efficient, through vehicles such as electric buses. (City of Ottawa)

The business of e-transportation beyond consumer vehicles is ripe for reinvention, and making the transition to a new transportation and logistics system is a key enabler for Canada's export-oriented economy.

Let's imagine, for example, a day when intelligent autonomous e-trucks have a priority lane on the new Gordie Howe bridge between Windsor and Detroit to make the just-in-time logistics between Canada and the U.S. more efficient and timely. Automotive parts, which sometimes cross this international border four times, will be tracked in real time and their transport will become emissions-free.

Given the benefits, it likely won't take long for delivery companies like Canada Post or Purolator to undertake a similar electric-transportation strategy. Amazon has already taken a step towards this reality by placing an order for 100,000 delivery e-vehicles with a nascent e-truck manufacturing company called Rivian.

The question is, will Canadian companies be ready to capitalize on growing demand and meet e-vehicle supply challenges?

Worldwide, from India to Germany, manufacturing companies are already queuing up to attract new electric vehicle engineers and tradespeople.

Tata, the leading transportation company in India, is developing its own extensive internal training programs for this purpose.

Germany and RWTH Aachen University have pioneered a concept known as an "e-vehicle ramp-up factory." Emerging electric vehicle companies developing new concepts work together with engineering students in a shared factory to produce electric vehicle prototypes.

This approach led to Deutche Post and DHL in Germany rolling out a new fleet of e-vehicles known as StreetScooters that were originally conceived at the ramp-up factory in Aachen.

A worker looks at the small electric motor that powers a Deutsche Post StreetScooter Work XL electric delivery van at the Ford car plant in Cologne, Germany. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

Clemson University in South Carolina has established a similar large prototyping facility.

These projects share the capital investment to create clean transportation solutions, and ultimately support the growth of new companies.

Initiatives like an e-vehicle ramp-up factory in Canada to help kick-start this new economic reality could provide training in new skills and help to capture the imagination of youth, enticing them to pursue jobs in e-vehicle manufacturing, production and maintenance. It would also help to get prototype production and small vehicle volumes off the ground in Canada instead of having them outsourced to China or elsewhere.

Creative training programs like this are an opportunity to build on Canada's automotive heritage and channel the aspirational values demonstrated in the recent climate protests towards new clean and efficient transportation solutions, while building new jobs for the future.


Randy Zadra is a senior advisor and Canadian ambassador of the World Manufacturing Forum (WMF). He has worked in various senior management roles at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the MIT Media Lab in Boston, Teleglobe and BCE Inc.


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