GM Canada president Scott Bell shares his take on Canada’s role in the company’s future
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Oct 14, 2021
Brian Banks

From minerals to manufacturing, General Motors is focused on an increasingly EV-dominant future and Canada is being considered a significant partner in the process says GM Canada president in an exclusive interview

Scott Bell, president of GM Canada, says “…there’s a lot of interest on all fronts to try to find a way to leverage the resources we do have here”

From minerals to manufacturing, General Motors is focused on an increasingly EV-dominant future and Canada is being considered a significant partner and place of investment in the process says GM Canada president in an exclusive interview

Last week, General Motors hosted a two-day investor event where it laid out extensive details of its planned transformation from automaker into a “platform innovator” — an expansion built largely on new electric vehicles, software and autonomous technologies — with a goal of doubling its revenue by 2030.

The event was in many ways a follow-up to last year’s “EV Day,” when GM first set out its long-term electrification strategy. At the corporate level, the announcements included:

  • One new EV (a US$30,000 electric Chevy Equinox), a teaser about another (an electric Silverado pickup to be revealed in January), and references to several more under the Chevy and Buick nameplates.
  • A new battery innovation centre in Michigan to further work on GM’s Ultium cells technology.
  • The signing of a memorandum of understanding with GE Renewable Energy to develop a supply chain of rare earth materials, magnets and specialty steel.
  • A next-generation, hands-free driver-assist system.
  • A further US$750-million investment in EV charging infrastructure.
  • A timeline to convert at least half of its North American plants to EV production by 2030.

According to Scott Bell, GM Canada’s president and general manager, the presentations demonstrate the “transformation that we’ve been going through as a company.” And while there wasn’t a lot of news specific to Canada, Bell says the event showed that “it’s getting real and Canada’s playing a big role.”

What kind of role? In our interview — exclusive to Electric Autonomy Canada — Bell reviewed the major announcements and elaborated on Canadian angles, including areas of potential growth or where further developments are most likely.

Supply chain opportunities

With just two assembly plants in Canada, both with fresh new vehicle mandates — one electric, the other not — there was nothing in last week’s news to suggest there’s any chance of additional EV production by GM in Canada in the near future. “If you want to look at the 50 per cent mark, we’re going to be there next year, basically,” says Bell.

However, Bell stresses that as GM’s North American plans unfold, the company is being “intelligent and purposeful” in where it converts plants to EVs, develops its own battery infrastructure and fortifies its supply chain. And it’s in the latter area — with regards to materials needed to make batteries — where Canada has “some opportunities.”

Scott Bell GM Canada headshot
President of GM Canada, Scott Bell

Bell declined to comment specifically on Canada’s potential place in GM’s new MOU with GE Renewable Energy to develop a supply chain of materials for its battery operations. But, in general, “there’s a place for Canada for sure,” he says.

“I don’t have anything to announce today, but there’s a lot of interest on all fronts to try to find a way to leverage the resources we do have here and make that part of [GM’s] supply chain going forward,” says Bell. “Canada, being a North American country and having access to a large piece of our footprint of manufacturing capability, I think it just puts us in a good position to have a seat at the table and hopefully we can find a way to make something come together here sooner than later.

“We get a lot of good dialogue with the government specifically here in Canada because we have experience already and I think that puts us in a good position to, you know, kind of push Canada as a frontrunner here going forward. So, more to come. I feel really good about where conversations have gone to date and the role GM is playing in that.”

Software and innovation

Naturally, the pending $1-billion conversion of GM’s CAMI plant in Ingersoll, Ont., to begin production of GM’s new BrightDrop EV600 electric delivery van in 2022 is also high on Bell’s list of EV-related highlights. In that case, the good news came two weeks ahead of the investor event, when GM announced it would add production of a second BrightDrop van, the EV410, in 2023.

Given that another talking point in last week’s presentation involved GM’s plans to cultivate and launch a number of new startups, Bell points out that the entire BrightDrop first-mile, last-mile logistics concept began with a product created at GM Canada’s CTC Engineering Centers. Namely, the EP1, a propulsion-assisted electric pallet for moving goods on and off the BrightDrop vans. “That innovation alone led us to this notion of, ‘We can develop a whole ecosystem,’” says Bell.

Likewise, software and other technical developments are key to GM’s “platform innovator” model and will draw heavily on the engineering talent working in Canada under the CTC umbrella, Bell adds.

“We have the largest automotive software operation here in Canada, and [GM’s] second largest only to Michigan. We’ve ramped up to 1,300 people in this operation.”

Infrastructure and affordability

Partnerships and dialogue — important in the supply chain area, noted above — also feature prominently when it comes to EV charging, Bell says. At last week’s event, GM announced it would invest an additional US$750-million in charging capability in the U.S. and Canada. According to Bell, a lot of that money will be for home use.

“Pre-COVID, 90-plus per cent of charging was done either at home or at work. But with work kind of being a place you don’t really go to much anymore, most of that’s going to be home,” he says.

“So, we’re playing a significant role here, but we can’t do it without the help of governments and some of the energy companies. Lots of partnerships will be formed. Some already are and [there are] more to be had. And I think we’re going to get after this pretty quick. But we can’t do it alone.”

Of course, both GM’s growth plan as well as government targets for increased EV adoption also rely on a speedy acceleration of consumer acceptance of EVs. For that reason, GM’s unveiling last week of an electric model of its Equinox SUV — its second-largest selling model in North America — with a list price of just US$30,000 was noteworthy. The high price of most EVs, while falling, is a major obstacle to wider sales. The relative affordability of this electric Equinox — and the hint of another, unspecified EV that will be even cheaper — should help to overcome that barrier.

“We’ve been working hard to find a way to get to parity [with ICE vehicles],” says Bell. “Our willingness to make the big bet and build our own platform with Ultium and vertically integrate that with this battery lab investment [announced last week] … is all just leading to chemistry and technology that is helping us to work that cost out and find ways to do more EVs for the masses.

“The Equinox [is] kind of our first coming out, if you will, that we’re starting to figure that out. It’s exciting. I’ve seen that vehicle in person and it’s stunning all on itself, but it’s [also] stunning in hitting a price point that will definitely drive some mass adoption.”

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