GM chooses Ontario to develop its autonomous cars of the future

There’s no mistaking Stephen Carlisle’s enthusiasm – and confidence – when he talks about the role Ontario will play in the technological transformation of the global auto industry in general and General Motors in particular.

The president and managing director of GM Canada proudly displayed some “Made-in-Ontario” innovations in a video for the 2016 Canadian International Auto Show. They range from Bluetooth low energy-based smartphone connectivity on the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV to the diesel emission fluid system in the GMC Canyon Diesel.

Carlisle sees a future where vehicles will be electric, connected, self-driving and shared. And he – and the company’s global headquarters – are convinced Ontario engineers will be instrumental in realizing that future.

“There’s just such an abundance of talent in Ontario,” says Carlisle.

GM makes one announcement after another about Ontario’s expanding global role

That’s why GM Canada has been on a roll in Ontario for the past nine months. It began in December, 2015 with the announcement that GM’s Oshawa Canadian Engineering Centre will be play a central role in testing and building the company’s next generation autonomous driving technology.

2908 at Communitech

Then, in February 2016, GM became the first automaker to establish a lab presence at Waterloo University’s Communitech accelerator. It’s called “2908 at Communitech,” a nod to how the company sees the future of its business 1,000 years from its start in 1908, and it’s all about disrupting traditional automotive business models. The GM team will explore and experiment with advanced smartphone applications, and new ride-sharing services and approaches. They’ll also investigate partnering opportunities to incubate new ideas for urban, multi-modal transportation systems that combine public transit and ride-sharing – and advance the mandate of the Canadian Engineering Centre to build a fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Volt electric vehicles.

“With ‘2908 at Communitech,’ we’ll be knocking down old approaches, finding new partners and boldly going where future mobility is headed,” says Carlisle.

The Toronto GM Mobility Campus

In April 2016, Carlisle announced plans for a new “Toronto GM Mobility Campus.” Located in downtown Toronto, the campus will house R&D facilities, GM vehicles sales and services –including sales of electric vehicles –and a public experience centre showcasing innovations in mobility.

New Software Development Centre

And, finally, in early June 2016, Carlisle announced a major engineering expansion – 700 new engineering jobs to drive innovation in connected vehicle technology, active safety and vehicle dynamics technology, and autonomous software and controls development.

To support all this expansion, GM will open a new Software Development Centre in Markham – and enhance its cold weather testing facility in Kapuskasing, doubling the length of the test track and adding cold cells capacity and capability.

How did GM Canada make the case for such an integral role in the company’s future?

It was surprisingly simple, says Carlisle, who before becoming head of GM Canada was vice president of global product planning and program management based in Detroit.

In that position, he was tasked with looking to the future – what the big trends would be in the auto industry and what skills would be required for GM to be at the forefront. In October 2014, he was invited to visit his alma mater, the University of Waterloo, and he was struck by the breadth of talent he found there.


GM favours Ontario’s talent over Silicon Valley

“My first reaction was ‘this is just awesome.’ Then I discovered that Ontario has the highest concentration of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), artificial intelligence and IT grads of pretty well any other jurisdiction. I was sold.”

Convinced that Ontario offered the critical software developers the company needed to drive the next revolution in the auto industry, Carlisle invited Mark Reuss, GM’s Executive Vice President, Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain, to Waterloo. Reuss was equally impressed – to the point where he observed to Wall Street analysts that GM, unlike its competitors, would be giving Silicon Valley a pass in favour of Ontario.

“There are seven universities between Windsor-Detroit and Oshawa, each with its own automotive expertise we can tap,” explains Carlisle.

GM Canada President Stephen Carlisle with two McMaster University students
GM Canada President Stephen Carlisle visits McMaster University
GM President North American Mark Reuss and GM Canada President Stephen Carlisle with six University of Waterloo students
GM President North America Mark Reuss and GM Canada President Stephen Carlisle visit the University of Waterloo
“Ontario is also closer to our engineering hub in Detroit. It just makes sense to expand here.”

Since taking the helm at GM Canada in November 2014, Carlisle has been moving quickly and he has no plans to slow down any time soon. In fact, he promises there will be more exciting announcements to come from GM Canada.

“The more we can prove we can do here, the more we’ll get to do.”

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