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Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association, is photographed with a drawing of Canada's first zero-emission concept vehicle named Project Arrow, in Toronto, on Tuesday, Oct., 13, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

A new all-Canadian electric vehicle has the potential to help transform the country’s automotive sector, even if it never actually makes it to the road.

On Tuesday, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association, which represents Canadian companies that ordinarily supply parts to international automakers, announced the design for what it has branded Project Arrow – an effort to prove that a zero-emissions vehicle can be completely designed, engineered and built here. It’s now to proceed to the engineering stage, with the rollout of a full concept car targeted for 2022.

The mock-up is by a group of Carleton University students who won a national design competition in which there were 25 applicants and nine full submissions, all from Canadian postsecondary institutions. Their design resembles a compact SUV, with a sharply contoured frame and panoramic windows. It’s billed as being suited to rugged Canadian terrains, in ways that may defy the current image of EVs.

But more than being geared toward consumers, the Arrow is an audacious attempt to give Canada a selling point as it tries to attract investment in manufacturing the types of vehicles expected to increasingly take over the global market. And it involves trying to overcome an inherent disadvantage for the Canadian sector that, notwithstanding the recent commitment by Ford Motor Co. for its Oakville, Ont., plant, poses a risk to the many thousands of workers employed by the APMA’s members.

In an interview, APMA president Flavio Volpe said the project – for which 93 Canadian firms have enlisted, from the largest established parts manufacturers such as Magna and Linamar to newer tech companies – was inspired by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call last year for industry to find ways to help meet Canada’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

But Mr. Volpe also acknowledged that it’s about making up for the challenge of Canada being the rare country with a large auto sector but no homegrown auto companies. While five global giants (Fiat-Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda and Toyota) have assembly plants in Ontario, none of them have a vested interest in promoting the Canadian sector and in some cases can be drawn more to investments in the countries where they’re based.

“Canada is a global leader in automotive production and parts production and automotive tech,” Mr. Volpe said. “But the biggest Canadian automotive manufacturing firms are suppliers who, by their very nature, do not advertise themselves.”

Demonstrating that Canadians already have the infrastructure and skills to produce an EV from start to finish will provide a much-needed “flag to wave,” Mr. Volpe hopes. “As the provincial and federal governments go out and pitch investments like the Ford one, you can do it on PowerPoint, you can do it on a conference call, you can do it on a Zoom call. I think our best sale will be, I’m going to put the Arrow in the hands of people who are selling our products. … The touch, feel and use of that car ends all debate on whether any individual company here can do something.”

It’s the sort of initiative that may be needed for the Canadian sector, which has seen its annual production of vehicles drop to about two million from about three million a couple of decades ago, and could now face a steeper decline given that many other countries have a head start in EV manufacturing.

“I think it’s rather brilliant,” says Mike Moffatt, an economist who has tracked the struggles and opportunities facing manufacturing in Southwestern Ontario, where the Canadian auto sector is mostly based. “One of the things any possible EV assembler will worry about, when deciding where to put a plant, is the local supply chain – will they be able to get all the parts they need close by, as well as engineering talent. This is a great ‘show, don’t tell’ way of signalling that all the ingredients are in place.”

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Handout rendering of Canadian-designed electric vehicle Project ArrowCourtesy of Project Arrow

Not that Mr. Volpe claims to be aiming solely at attracting foreign-owned assembly plants. While the APVA doesn’t have anywhere close to the capital to launch a whole line of vehicles, its ideal scenario is that the concept vehicle serves as a “head start” for other Canadian interests to do so, or at least inspires realization that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to develop homegrown electric-vehicle manufacturing in a way that never happened with internal combustion engines.

If nothing else, amid the race to compete in a lower-emissions future, the effort might signal a manufacturing ambition that Canada has previously eschewed or abandoned

Asked why the project is named after the Avro Arrow – the 1950s high-tech fighter jet that was supposed to be the crown jewel of the Canadian aerospace industry, but was infamously abandoned by the federal government – Mr. Volpe suggested that it might be a chance to help make up for that history.

“We thought of all the people who were crushed” by the decision and the thousands of jobs it cost, he said. “And we said if we can spiritually avenge that for them, we will.”

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