Quebec is looking to gain a foothold in a global transportation industry being transformed by electrification and self-driving technology, including becoming a battery powerhouse.
“Quebec has two main ingredients that are important for the future of the auto industry: abundance of clean, low-cost electricity and a major centre for AI [artificial intelligence],” said Ray Tanguay, a former auto industry adviser to the federal and Ontario governments.
“Autonomous vehicles will play a major role in the future, and this infrastructure and brainpower will be the driving force to make it possible,” said Tanguay, also a former president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC) in Cambridge, Ont.
The province is also endowed with natural resources — graphite, nickel, lithium and cobalt — that are critical to the development of a homegrown EV-battery supply chain.
But Quebec is not necessarily looking to start building vehicles, JeanPierre D’Auteuil, a spokesman for the Ministry of Economy and Innovation, wrote in an email to Automotive News Canada.
As zero-emission and self-driving technology penetrates every mode of transportation, Quebec plans to establish a high-value supply chain that attracts manufacturers in heavy industries, such as buses, trucks, trains, recreational vehicles, planes and shipping, D’Auteuil said.
“Our industry and our research centres have been preparing for this for several years and have a lot to offer to global manufacturers in North America and elsewhere in the world,” he said.
$600-MILLION ZEV JOLT
The province’s course has been paved with public and private investment.
Over the past decade, Quebec has spent almost $600 million stimulating demand for zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) by offering consumer rebates for purchasing ZEVs and installing charging stations. The funding is designed to support Quebec’s mandate that requires all light vehicles sold be emissions-free by 2035. In 2020, ZEVs represented 6.8 per cent of all new motor vehicles registered in the province, up from 5.9 per cent in 2019, according to Statistics Canada.
The province also seeks to become a hub for EV battery production, earmarking $1.4 billion for that goal.
In March, the governing Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) announced that in partnership with the federal government, it was investing $100 million in Lion Electric’s new battery manufacturing plant in SainteJerome, 65 kilometres northwest of downtown Montreal.
“This [$185-million] project represents a major step forward in the development of our battery production capacity in Quebec,” former Economy and Innovation Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said at the time. “With critical minerals; world-class research; promising technologies; and, above all, clean, renewable electricity, we have everything we need in Quebec to become a leader in the global electric revolution.”
In 2017, Lion Electric transitioned from building traditional school buses to producing battery-powered buses and commercial trucks. That move dovetails with Quebec’s plan to push a greater number of municipalities into emissions-free public transportation.
It also aligns with the CAQ’s $6.7-billion climate change action strategy, called Plan for a Green Economy 2030. The five-year plan, unveiled last fall, is designed to help the province meet its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target of 37.5 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. The plan also aims to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035.
The CAQ estimates its plan could generate 15,500 jobs by 2030.
JOBS BOOM FOR AI
Many of those jobs would be created in the province’s fledgling artificial intelligence sector, which is crucial to the next stage of automotive development, said Frantz Saintellemy, COO of LeddarTech, a Quebec City-based developer of environmental sensing and other technologies used by autonomous driving systems.
“Over the next 10 years, [automakers] and their Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers will need more skilled workers trained in automation, robotics, advanced user experience, computer/machine vision and AI,” Saintellemy said.
Skilled workers will also be needed in “advanced battery technologies, fast charging and green-energy generation to power the growing demand for fast chargers,” he said.
Montreal’s status as a growing hub for AI research puts it in a position to capitalize on an industry that relies more on digital resources than the assembly lines of traditional manufacturing.
Over the past few years, tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft have opened AI research labs in the city, which is also home to startups playing a role in the sensorand software-dependent self-driving future.
RECOVERING FROM COVID
In 2019, the Japan-based auto parts supplier Denso chose Montreal as the site for a satellite research-and-development lab to develop AI technology for the transportation industry.
“While COVID-19 has slowed some of our developments since the 2019 announcement, Denso has begun various projects within the Montreal research ecosystem,” Pat Bassett, senior vice-president of Denso’s North American Research and Engineering Center, wrote in an email. “We’ve partnered with local universities and organizations ... to accelerate development of advanced technology like AI, data science and cybersecurity — and explore their use in mobility.”
Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said the displacement of fossil fuels in mobility will happen at the same time as a new “oil rush”: The creation and capture of billions of terabytes of data by intelligent vehicles.
“The leaders of tomorrow will be those who can take that data, process it into actionable intelligence and monetize it directly or through more efficient operation of vehicles and systems,” Volpe said. “Quebec is at the intersection of all those capabilities and has the ambition to make it happen.”