At the end of 2022 the real life prototype of the Project Arrow vehicle will be unveiled to the world. In an exclusive interview, one of the project’s core leaders recaps the journey and sets the record straight on future plans
December 2022 may seem like a long way off to the majority of Canadians, but to the Project Arrow lead team it may as well be tomorrow.
Project Arrow, the pan-Canada initiative launched in February 2020 by the Automotive Parts and Manufacturers Association (APMA) to gather and consolidate the best of the Canadian automotive supply chain sector and bring the elements together in one all-electric concept vehicle, is in the final 11 months of its innovation period.
For its part, the APMA has been an unrelenting champion and promoter of the Arrow. Its efforts range from launching wave after wave of RFPs courting vendors looking to get their technology on the vehicle, to maintaining a slick website that gives the public a window into the design process, to promising a two-year global tour of the vehicle once it is completed.
“We’ve wrapped ourselves in the flag on this one here,” says Flavio Volpe, president of the APMA and one of the core leaders of Project Arrow. “This project — maybe because we borrow from the Avro Arrow’s mythology — has captured the imaginations of people.”
Facts and fictions
Last year, the APMA held its annual conference, which included an update on Project Arrow’s physical size (between a Tesla X and Y); a promise of a stripped-down vehicle with a minimum of individual parts (the body will be made up of eight mega stampings); announcement of a battery partner (Quebec-based VoltaXplore, along with technology from the Ontario Tech University and its Automotive Center of Excellence in Oshawa), and confirmation that the vehicle will have Level 3 autonomy.
As the Arrow vehicle has solidified from vision to near-reality, many facts and fictions have been circulated about the project. From the 2021 annual disclosure alone came many extrapolations: that Project Arrow is going into commercial production, there are heavy-hitting investors lined up to bankroll that production, and plans for cost and scale are well underway.
But despite the absolutism of some of those claims, many are, in fact, unconfirmed by the Project Arrow team itself.
Here is what we do know: Project Arrow is in phase four of its four-part development plan. The Arrow’s main suppliers are finalized, secondary suppliers are being locked in and prototype construction is set to begin this summer. The leadership team is making no secret that they are racing against the clock to get the prototype ready to unveil to Canadians and the world in December.
It’s against that backdrop that Electric Autonomy Canada sat down with Volpe for an exclusive interview to recap the Arrow’s journey so far, set the record straight on future plans, and gain insight into what it’s like to chair one of the most ambitious automotive projects in Canada.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Electric Autonomy: What was one of the really big challenges you had to grapple with in launching Project Arrow with the parameters it has?
Flavio Volpe: Our commitment at the beginning of this was to build an all-Canadian car and then to showcase Canadian technology. On one hand that restricted our choices in a bunch of major components. But on the other hand, it then kind of inspires you to look a little deeper at players that others aren’t talking about. I’m very, very proud of one thing that’s happened already: even if we fail to build the car, more people in more places around the world are talking about Canadian automotive technology than they ever did. At least 438 Canadian companies wanted to be involved in Project Arrow. I’m telling you, I didn’t know 100 of them existed.
Electric Autonomy: Recently it was announced that VoltaXplore is now involved in Project Arrow to supply batteries for the car. Tell me a little bit about why VoltaXplore — a new joint venture between Martinrea and NanoXplore — is a good fit and what securing that battery manufacturer means in terms of achieving the goal to make a nose-to-tail, made-in-Canada car?
Flavio Volpe: Obviously, the APMA have a long relationship with Martinrea and we really liked what NanoXplore stood for and they are joint venture partners now. We humbly think that enhancements on a lithium base is where the industry is headed and the JV — VoltaXplore — we like the science. One of the things that I think we have as a responsibility in this project is to bet on our own. And so we’ve bet on Martinrea, we bet on NanoXplore and we chose VoltaXplore. Our timing lines up well with their product development.
Electric Autonomy: So we hear a lot of chatter about financing Project Arrow. Where exactly is the project at in terms funding to get across that December finish line?
Flavio Volpe: We launched this before the pandemic and, of course, the world has fallen apart several times since. Keeping Project Arrow both on budget and on time has been a Herculean effort and we’ve kept it there. We are still in funding discussions with other private and public parties, but the heat is off. We should have what we need, if the world doesn’t fall apart again. We’re fully funded by provincial funds, federal funds and technology contributors who are also contributing funding for integration or engineering contributions in kind. We were fortunate enough to have FedDev Ontario come forward in August and that has made us whole for the project. I’m confident we can do this.
Electric Autonomy: Was it hard to drum up financial interest in Project Arrow, at least at the beginning?
Flavio Volpe: Major capital players in this country — and from outside this country — who read the coverage get confused as to who we [the APMA] are [and] what we’re doing, like a trade association building a concept vehicle? In fairness to them, it is unheard of. I think these investors assume that we are a start-up, which we are not, but that doesn’t stop them from offering up their interest in helping us capitalize a start-up.
Electric Autonomy: And will you be taking any of them up on that opportunity?
Flavio Volpe: Those are conversations that I politely accept and intellectually indulge myself in, but they don’t help us get to December, first. We’ve got to deliver on our original objective before we say that we take on something even more ambitious. On one hand, I’m happy that people are confident that we can do this — that’s important — but also there’s at least as big a constituency that says, there is no way we can do this. Both of those dynamics feed me. We’re already extremely ambitious as a trade association, but we’ve wrapped ourselves in the flag on this one here and I want to be really responsible and not let people’s hopes get caught up, and then disappoint them.
Electric Autonomy: That’s a lot of pressure — whichever side of the can-they, can’t-they line you are listening to. What has this journey and your role in it been like for you?
Flavio Volpe: It has been the most exciting thing I think we’ve ever done at the APMA. Personally, when we did the the PPE conversion of the industry in response to COVID and coordinate that, I mean, that was the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my life. So, this is different. Project Arrow is the most academically and intellectually exciting thing I’ve ever done.
Electric Autonomy: What is the key achievement that sticks out to you in all of this, so far?
Flavio Volpe: Even if we fail to build the car, more people in more places around the world are talking about Canadian automotive technology than they ever did. We are making connections for these supplier companies, whether they are on the car or not, with customers around the world. I’m really proud of that. I think when people talk now about Canada and automotive technology, we have a disproportionately large influence and following because of the attention this project has been able to bring to incredible companies.
Electric Autonomy: So does this end in December or is there a plan to bring Project Arrow even further to life with commercial production?
Flavio Volpe: There isn’t. But it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be. Certainly we would be very happy to see this thing become become a Canadian going concern. I’m open to all of it, but we are very focused on making sure that we don’t slip budget or timeframe. There’s a lot of pressure on getting this project done by December so I’m open to any conversation that that helps us get to that spot first.
Electric Autonomy: Finally, what wisdom and lessons learned do you hope the entire auto industry — or anyone who has been interested in it, really — takes away from watching Project Arrow unfold?
Flavio Volpe: I think those of us who advocate for the space or sell parts around the world realize that the ticket to the dance is increasingly, ‘Do you have an OEM?’ But the electrification of the global vehicle business has allowed for new models.
This project is a bit of a crowdsourced example on how to do it and how not to do it. We’re making mistakes so that other people don’t have to. And where we succeed I think we shorten the workload for people. For example, we launched the RFP for this project and 12 companies showed up in the battery class. I didn’t even know nine of them existed. Were it not for the noise that we made with the project and the chance to be part of a really high-profile project, I don’t know how long it would have taken for us to hear from them, see their technology and understand it.
The one vehicle that we will build for December will tour the world in 2023 and 2024 flying the flag for Canada. What I really would love to see at the end of Arrow is somebody takes our notebook and takes this car over the line or inspires a credible sustainable cluster of new OEM activity in Canada, just like we see in places like Silicon Valley.