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The stars align again for Oshawa – Electric vehicles on the rise

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on January 25, 2016

People looking to the night skies this month have been treated to a rare alignment of the planets. Looking a little farther out on the horizon we can see things aligning again for Oshawa.

The City of Oshawa and Region of Durham are uniquely positioned as Ontario’s centre of auto manufacturing and energy generation. Not everyone knows how we got here and the historical role Oshawa and Ontario played in today’s automotive industry; but this recollection is particularly poignant for the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).

Just south of UOIT on Simcoe Street in Oshawa is the majestic Parkwood Estate; the McLaughlin Family home from 1917 to 1972. Sam McLaughlin was the founder of General Motors of Canada.

Born in nearby Enniskillen, Sam McLaughlin started working for his father in 1887. The McLaughlin Carriage Works, founded in 1867 (the same year as Canadian Confederation), was at one time the largest manufacturer of horse-drawn buggies and sleighs in the British Empire.

The McLaughlins, reading the stars, saw how horses might be replaced, and with engines from William Durant of Buick started to produce the McLaughlin-Buick Model F. The McLaughlin Motor Car Company, incorporated in 1907 was merged with William Durant’s business and in 1908 became General Motors.

McLaughlin’s philanthropy is important for Ontario, supporting the Royal Ontario Museum, the McLaughlin Planetarium, and universities such as Toronto, Queen’s and Guelph all have buildings named after the McLaughlins, in recognition of their financial support. So too St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario.

In a roundabout way, UOIT also owes its existence to Sam McLaughlin. The land where UOIT sits was sold by Sam McLaughlin (then Parkwood Stables) to E.P. Taylor who renamed it Windfields Farm (home of the legendary Canadian thoroughbred Northern Dancer). The Taylor family has donated much of the land to UOIT.

Just as the internal-combustion (IC) automobile replaced horse-drawn carriages, we are now at another historical inflection point. And again Oshawa’s star is rising as society transitions toward alternative energy vehicles. But this time the ‘revolution’ needs to be a team-effort.

The shift to electric vehicles (EVs) will likely be different from the last big technological change when engines replaced horses. This time the whole transportation sector is changing – and again, enormous opportunity for Oshawa and Ontario.

There’s much talk about ‘smart cities’ and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. But this remains just talk until a community – neighborhood, businesses and local government – make them real. Revolutions and smart initiatives need to be anchored somewhere – again, an opportunity for Oshawa.

A few of the key drivers for electric vehicles: (i) the transportation sector is Ontario’s largest source of greenhouse (GHG) gas emissions, and more than half the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) GHG output; (ii) exhaust from cars and trucks is still Ontario’s leading cause of air pollution (contributing to more than 2,500 premature deaths a year in the GTA alone); and (iii) congestion and constrained land values in the GTA cost the province’s economy more than $10 billion per year.

Why the whole sector is changing this time: (i) self-drive cars are closer than they appear; (ii) today’s cars are particularly inefficient – sitting idle for more than 90 per cent of the time – and in some cities, more than half of all land is given to the automobile (Uber did not happen by accident); and (iii) urbanization and cities are now driving Canada’s, and the rest of the world’s economy – the most important aspect for a city’s economy is mobility and connectivity.

Why Ontario and Oshawa are best positioned to lead again: (i) the Province of Ontario wisely provided enabling regulations for developers to test self-drive cars; (ii) the GTA, along with Montreal and Vancouver, is fortunate to have very low-carbon electricity (from hydro and nuclear) – switching to EVs in these communities is especially smart; (iii) because Ontario is in the process of introducing a carbon cap-and-trade system (as the area’s largest carbon emitter), switching to EVs will be particularly attractive; and (iv) Oshawa’s General Motors has some 100+ new engineers ready to work on e-mobility issues and rollout products like the Volt and Bolt.

This time a comprehensive and integrated approach is needed to change the transportation sector. Local governments need to be involved, promoting ‘Uber-like’ rideshare platforms that support EVs. EVs with rideshare applications can be linked to High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes and back-haul trips on GO trains (in the afternoons, almost all GO trains return to Union Station near-empty: with preferential programming, EV occupants could fill some of these empty seats, boosting the local economy). Similarly more shared EVs can support increased mobility for the poor and disabled (mobility is often the biggest barrier to full societal participation for marginalized groups). Local distribution companies (LDCs) need to be involved to help ensure EVs have minimum disruption on the power grid (LDCs might also lease EVs to customers, supporting car-share companies).

This time the transportation sector probably will not be replaced by the big companies alone. Even though EV manufacturer Tesla Motors is expanding quickly; General Motors recently paid $500 million to access Lyft’s ridesharing software; and Ford and Google are collaborating on self-drive vehicles – just as big are the changes coming from smaller players like UOIT-developed BlancRide, e-bikes, and car-share companies like Car2Go. And local governments – the keepers of the streets – must be involved from the start.

Around the same time that General Motors was being created and Henry Ford started to produce the Model T (1908) the great standards war was being waged at Niagara Falls. On one side there were Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse (proponents of alternating current (AC) and on the other Thomas Edison (direct current (DC) supporter). Tesla and Westinghouse won that showdown and in 1896 the first large-scale supply of AC electric power was brought to Buffalo and Hamilton. This cheap and plentiful electricity ushered in North America’s manufacturing prowess and helped establish Oshawa and Detroit as centres of car manufacturing. Ontario’s manufacturing prowess owes as much to Sam McLaughlin and Nikola Tesla as anyone.

Ironically Thomas Edison’s big goal was to develop an electric vehicle (for example, Edison invented the lead-acid battery that starts almost every IC car today).

We tend to think big issues will be decided by a few key people like Tesla versus Edison, or a few big companies like Ford and Google versus Apple versus GM. But today’s big revolutions like better transportation and smart cites are being mostly decided in city halls, through the partnerships between governments and transportation agencies like Metrolinx, and by what we the customer choose. Sure, big infrastructure and new technologies are needed, but more important are big ideas started through lots of ‘little drives’.

A recent transportation alternatives workshop in Durham Region discussed EVs – opportunities and challenges. Looking at all the moving parts, potential, and transportation needs in the GTA, a sense of excitement emerged. Change is on the horizon, the stars are aligning, rising in the eastern sector of the GTA. Oshawa and Durham Region are well positioned to lead Ontario and Canada’s next shift in transportation services. Everyone needs to get on board.

Filed under: Sustainability 101