EDITOR’S NOTE: In part one of a three-part series Electrifying Oakville, Automotive News Canada takes a closer look at the pledge Ford. Motor Co. has made to electric vehicles and its only assembly plant in Ontario, and how that could affect the Canadian auto industry as a whole.
Ford Motor Co.’s planned $1.8-billion investment in its Oakville, Ont., plant to build five electric vehicles by 2027 has the potential to transform both the company’s Canadian operations and the country’s supply chain, according to industry executives and experts.
“It’s encouraging for the future of the sector,” said Brian Kingston, CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, which represents the Canadian operations of Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. “Auto assembly has a massive supply chain, and when an investment like this is made, it has a huge spinoff benefit that helps companies of all sizes across the province and across Canada.”
The investment commitment, set to take place in 2024 with $590 million in combined financial assistance from the federal and Ontario governments — announced Oct. 8 — is the centrepiece of a new contract between Unifor and Ford. The three-year deal was ratified by 81 per cent of union members in late September. Under the plan, Ford would begin producing battery-electric vehicles at the Oakville plant in 2026, with five models being built there by 2027. It would be the first factory in Canada dedicated to EV production.
INVESTMENT AN ‘ANCHOR’
Industry stakeholders who spoke to Automotive News Canada were bullish about the plans.
Brendan Sweeney, managing director for the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing in London, Ont., said Ford’s massive expenditure could serve as an “anchor” in attracting further EV production investments in the future. The Trillium Network is a nonprofit organization based at Western University in London, Ont., that advocates for advanced manufacturing in the province.
“This could very well serve as the catalyst” for Ontario emerging as a major EV producer, Sweeney said.
Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and industry, said the Oakville plan will spark investments throughout the supply chain. He said Ottawa would work with Canada’s mining industry to “better connect”
it with the auto sector, potentially spurring battery production.
“We want Canada to be a world leader when it comes to the production of batteries and zero-emission vehicles in Canada,” he said.
Rob Wildeboer, executive chairman of Martinrea International Inc., said barring another global crisis, Ford’s plan for Oakville speaks positively about Canada’s ability to expand its auto-manufacturing footprint under the new North American trade pact.
“There always could be something [negative] happening in 2030, but people are always going to buy cars. It’s important to be competitive, and I think we’ve done some good things” as a country, he said.
TIMING IS UNUSUAL
The plans offer some clarity over the future of Ford’s sole assembly plant in Canada, which will continue to build the Edge and the Lincoln Nautilus crossover until 2023, when the company’s new contract with Unifor expires.
The timing of the Oakville retooling is unusual, however. Investments announced during labour negotiations are typically undertaken during the life of a new agreement, not a year after the contract is scheduled to expire. Assuming Unifor and Ford stick with three-year contracts, the union will have negotiated with Ford two more times by the time all five EVs are supposed to be rolling off the assembly line in 2027.
The plant will employ fewer people come 2027 than it does today, according to Ford and Unifor. About 3,000 workers would be employed at the Oakville plant by then, down from around 3,400 today, a figure that was already reduced following rounds of job cuts over the last year or so. The union expects the reduction in head count to be accounted for entirely through retirements.
Despite the lengthy timeline for the Ford investment, the Oakville plant appears to be on solid ground, said Kristin Dziczek, vice-president of industry, labour and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. The new-vehicle market will likely be on an upswing by 2024, making Ford’s investment viable.
“This is amazingly good news, and the fact that the government is up to bat for the industry and for this investment is very strong,” she said.
FUTURE ‘LOCKED IN’
Unifor President Jerry Dias contrasted the Oakville plans favorably to the deal his union negotiated with General Motors in 2016. That contract included an investment in GM’s Oshawa, Ont., assembly facility for final assembly on pickup bodies shipped from the United States.
At the time, union leaders hailed the plans as a lifesaver for the storied plant. But after two years of pickup production, vehicle assembly ended in December 2019. The Oshawa factory is now used for a much smaller aftermarket-parts operation.
“We negotiated a product that was a shuttle” in Oshawa in 2016, Dias said. “This is not a shuttle [in Oakville]. This is not just one vehicle. It’s five [EV] models . ...We’ve locked in the future in this agreement.”
Dziczek cited a letter from Ford to Unifor detailing its plans for Oakville, noting it does not include language stipulating that such an investment would be “contingent on business and market case,” as contracts sometimes do if a planned investment is not a surefire thing. Instead, Ford only stipulated the need for government support and “competitive operational practices,” which the company feels it received in the contract.
A request for comment from Ford Canada CEO Dean Stoneley was declined, but in a statement issued after the union’s ratification vote, he said that by introducing battery-electric vehicle production in Oakville, “we are cementing our Canadian operations as a leader in advanced automotive manufacturing.”
WHAT EVS, THOUGH?
Dias said at least one of the models in Oakville would be a crossover and that there were plans for two-door and four-door vehicles, though details were not disclosed. Dias said he expected about 200,000 vehicles a year to be built in Oakville by 2027.
Sam Fiorani, an analyst at U.S.-based AutoForecast Solutions LLC, said those EVs could be similar in size to the midsize Edge. He also said it would make sense if two of the five models were Lincoln-branded variations of a Ford EV built there, and a higher-end Lincoln specialty vehicle also was possible.
“If you’re going to build it in Canada, you’re going to want it to be higher end and a little more expensive than the ones you’re building in Mexico, especially when EVs are not making money at the moment.”
Still, worldwide, Ford is investing heavily in electric vehicles, planning to invest $14.6 billion by 2022 to electrify its lineup, including rolling out 16 EVs.