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GM Canada to open innovation research zone in Waterloo’s Communitech Hub

GM Canada Steve Carlisle © GM Canada
GM Canada Steve Carlisle © GM Canada

General Motors Canada president and general manager Steve Carlisle, in remarks delivered at Toronto’s Canadian Club on Tuesday, has announced the company’s intention to install an “innovation research zone” in Waterloo’s Communitech Hub and has also called on various levels of government in Canada to take the lead in the fast-changing world of automotive technology, suggesting that Canada could become a world-class innovator in the electric vehicle and self-driving car markets.

GM Canada currently employs approximately 6,300 people, with assembly plants in Oshawa and Ingersoll, Ontario, and a transmission and engine plant in St. Catharines.

“No company, country or government owns this space, but we see that Canada has distinct advantages in mobile technology, engineering skills, applied research and a strong automotive history,” said Carlisle. “As Canada prepares to invest billions in much needed urban transportation infrastructure, we need to understand how new automotive technologies and urban mobility approaches can increase infrastructure ROI, accelerate environmental benefits and anchor new high skilled Canadian jobs at the forefront of a new automotive innovation supply chain.”

GM had already announced the awarding of a new R&D and innovation mandate at its Oshawa Engineering Centre in April, announcing that it would be hiring 100 software engineers, of which it has already hired 30, as well as engaging with Canada’s ecosystem of universities, tech accelerators and suppliers to help fulfill that mandate.

The Oshawa announcement is important in the face of GM’s decision to shut down production of the Chevy Camaro later this month, moving it to Lansing, Michigan and eliminating the 1,100 jobs associated with the car’s production.

Carlisle used his platform at the Canadian Club to announce a $1 million investment in the University of Waterloo’s Engineering Faculty through the creation of a new Research Chair in advanced materials, while also sponsoring engineering design projects through the school’s Capstone Design program concentrating on the connected car.

“Waterloo Engineering has a longstanding partnership with GM Canada,” said U of W’s dean of Engineering Dr. Pearl Sullivan. “Their support of our Educating the Engineer of the Future campaign allows us to collaborate further to advance innovations in automotive lightweighting and connectivity.”

Sensing a change in the political landscape, with the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the trade horizon and a new Liberal government promising infrastructure spending in Canada, Carlisle’s message suggested the ways that Canada might differentiate itself in the new global pecking order.

“We have an opportunity to gain far greater value from our infrastructure investments, reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions and above all grab this unique opportunity to anchor and unlock significant economic potential for Canada,” said Carlisle, adding that governments might start putting out request for proposals emphasizing smart road technology.

And with the TPP set to make labour markets compete with Mexican and Asian auto manufacturers, it’s in the field of smart technology that Canada might enjoy a leading edge.

“Communitech has developed a unique innovation ecosystem that allows enterprise companies and startups to collaborate and innovate together,” said Communitech CEO Iain Klugman. “General Motors Canada is a great addition to this ecosystem, as our startup and mid-sized companies will benefit from having access to a world class automotive company, while GM Canada will be exposed to new concepts, technologies and ways of thinking about opportunities in the automotive sector.”

Next year, GM will roll out its affordable all-electric Chevrolet Bolt, a made-in-Canada vehicle that can run 320 kilometres on a single charge.

GM Canada will be joining several other legacy companies participating in the Communitech Hub, including Thomson Reuters, TD Bank Group, Canon, Canadian Tire, Deloitte and Manulife.

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