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Marissa West, president of GM Canada, with the electric 2023 Cadillac LYRIQ, at the GM Canadian Technical Center, in Markham, Ont., on Oct. 14.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Marissa West is peering intently through the driver’s-side window of a shiny silver Cadillac Lyriq – a $70,000 SUV that’s leading General Motors Co.’s GM-N drive to become North America’s dominant electric-vehicle manufacturer.

Named president of GM Canada in April, Ms. West is watching software engineers at the company’s two-storey technical centre in Markham, Ont., run tests on a car that will be in showrooms next year. They are demonstrating the latest version of the touch screen on the Cadillac’s wraparound digital dashboard.

Tap one corner of the screen, the driver sees how far the batteries will take them: a full charge powers the car over 500 kilometres. Tap another and the distance to the nearest charging station pops up. Using the screen is as simple as changing radio stations or turning on seat heaters. Early reviews say the control panel on the Lyriq beats that of Tesla’s comparable SUV.

For Ms. West, getting the dashboard right is critical to winning over new car buyers who are holding off on electric vehicles, in part over fears of running out of juice on road trips. And delivering cutting-edge software written by the automaker’s team of 830 engineers in Markham and Oshawa, Ont., is critical to winning Canada an outsized share of the US$35-billion that GM will invest in electric-vehicle production by 2025.

“I have come in at a time we’re leading not only a transformation of the Canadian automotive industry, but a transformation of our company as well,” she said. Speaking with The Globe and Mail last month – her first in-depth interview since taking the top position at the 5,100-employee company – the graduate of engineering schools at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University outlined how GM is prepping for an all-electric future.

Her job means both retooling factories and re-educating drivers. In Canada, consumers have been reluctant to get behind the wheel of electric vehicles, or EVs, because of concerns around the high purchase price, along with the driving range and lack of charging infrastructure. Last year, electric vehicles accounted for 4.2 per cent of new car sales in Canada, according to a study by the International Energy Agency. In contrast, nearly three-quarters of all cars sold in Norway and more than half of those sold in Iceland were electric.

GM’s priorities include making EVs more affordable, Ms. West said, pointing to the planned introduction of Chevrolet Equinox at around $35,000, and ramped up production of the Chevy Bolt, which is in the same price range. The company is also working with its 450 dealers in Canada to expand charging networks, paying for installation of 10 charging stations in the dealer’s choice of location. GM’s tech facility in Markham features 14 charging stations in the guest parking lot.

While several provinces, including Quebec and British Columbia, and the U.S. government offer subsidies to EV buyers, Ontario last month ruled out giving tax credits to drivers who go electric.

“We partner well with our governments, but I admit we are disappointed there is not a lot more focus on EV readiness for Canadian consumers, who tell us they need to see much more EV charging infrastructure and better consumer EV purchase incentives,” Ms. West said.

On the production side, GM’s goal is to produce one million EVs annually in North America by 2025, more than twice its current global capacity. To get there, the automaker is bringing battery production in house, shortening supply chains and revamping every car and truck brand in its portfolio.

“We’re building the capabilities we need to transition GM into a technology company, as opposed to a traditional automaker.”

Ms. West said that as the head office in Detroit decides where to build new factories, the well-educated work force and a low carbon-emission power grid on the other side of the border “presents a generational opportunity for Canada.”

GM Canada scored an early victory in the company’s EV evolution by landing a mandate early in 2021 to build electric delivery trucks at the CAMI factory in Ingersoll, Ont. The $1-billion facility, funded in part by $259-million contributions from both the provincial and federal governments, is expected to begin production by the end of the year.

“This is the fastest full transformation of a plant in GM’s history,” Ms. West said. The company’s Oshawa truck engine facility previously held this record.

“Canada has established itself on speed to launch, and the ability to deliver on aggressive targets.”

However, GM is also investing billions on EV facilities in the U.S. and Mexico. The company is building Cadillac Lyriqs in Tennessee and electric pickups and GMC Hummers in Michigan. The automaker’s three battery factories – joint ventures with the Korean company, LG Energy Solution Ltd. – went to Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. In the near future, GM plans to build at least one more battery facility.

But these new facilities face teething pains. In a report last week, RBC Capital Markets analyst Joseph Spak said GM pushed back its target on production of 400,000 EVs annually from next year to the first half of 2024, owing to issues with hiring and training employees, ensuring production quality and integrating LG’s battery technology.

GM faces investor pressure to quickly ramp up EV production, according to the RBC analyst, as the automaker’s financial performance is currently suffering due to lower profit margins on electric Cadillacs and Chevrolets, compared to internal combustion vehicles.

“Scale is needed for EV margins to move higher and GM is in the early stages of bringing its EV products to market,” Mr. Spak said.

How does Ms. West convince her bosses in Michigan to build more plants in Canada? That’s a critical question in cities such as Oshawa and St. Catharines, Ont., both homes to GM factories that make internal combustion engines.

“No GM plant should feel left behind because they are building internal combustion vehicles,” she said. “We’re going to live in this ambidextrous world between internal combustion and EVs for a while.”

Going forward, GM will favour building new EV facilities in sites where the company has “an existing footprint, with a great assembly plant,” she said. “It’s a holistic effort, working with the union and working with the government to ensure conditions are right.”

Over the past two years, St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik teamed up with the automaker, provincial and federal politicians on a “complex” $109-million expansion of GM’s engine plant. The project included a $28-million investment in a generation facility powered by landfill gas and cut the GM factory’s net greenhouse-gas emissions by 70 per cent.

“As we move toward electrification, there’s an opportunity to innovate with large employers like GM, to ensure the viability of their operations and our community,” Mr. Sendzik said. Over several meetings with Ms. West, he said, it became clear the GM executive values a highly trained work force and the security that comes with North American supply chains, rather than relying on overseas suppliers.

Ms. West has spent her entire career at GM, starting as a student intern in 2001, while still studying mechanical engineering. For fun at university, she built a race car with classmates. Prior to moving to Toronto last spring, the mother of four children ran GM’s truck development program, introducing new versions of some of the automaker’s best-selling and most profitable pickups, the GMC Sierra and the Chevrolet Silverado. Her predecessor as GM Canada president, Scott Bell, came up the sales side of the automaker and moved back to head office in April to become head of GM’s Chevrolet division.

As a woman in what was traditionally a male-dominated auto industry, she said GM is counting on diversity and innovation in the workplace to power the transition to EVs: “We aspire to be the most inclusive company in the world. That’s important because it means we’re representative of our customer base.”

How is GM doing on that front? Days before a Globe and Mail interview at the Markham facility, Ms. West was on stage at the company’s Oshawa factory with GM chief executive Mary Barra and Unifor national president Lana Payne. They were three female leaders in the auto industry speaking to more than 500 employees, 54 per cent of whom were women.

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