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Josipa Petrunic aims to see traffic-clogged arteries get a lot cleanerThe Globe and Mail

After a few minutes with Josipa Petrunic, CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), it becomes clear that the name of the organization, mouthful that it is, doesn't quite capture the vision of its energetic leader.

The limiting word is "transit." CUTRIC, an industry-led collaboration with academia and government, aims to boost low-carbon transit technologies – everything from lightweight materials used in vehicles to zero-emission propulsion systems. (1)

But Petrunic, 36, can't seem to talk transit without bringing in automotive innovation. Transit and auto supply chains, once distinct, are converging as governments push electric mobility as a way to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, she says. (2) Carmakers are getting their fuel cells, lithium-ion battery packs, power electronics and electric motors from the same suppliers as bus and railcar manufacturers. "We're in a new era," says Petrunic. "Just look under the hood."

Consider Tesla Motors. Founder Elon Musk sees Tesla's electric vehicle business expanding into "heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport." Musk also wants to start a Tesla car-sharing service and extend self-driving capabilities across all vehicle categories–powered, of course, by batteries from Tesla's Gigafactory in Nevada.

Petrunic worries that public policy isn't keeping up with this convergence: Governments continue to look at transit and auto innovation through different lenses. Funding for projects comes from scattered pools of money in various departments and programs, each with its own strict policy objectives. Such fragmentation, Petrunic says, makes it difficult to push a coherent national innovation agenda around transportation. It's her mission to assemble the pieces.

Born and raised in Calgary, Petrunic has always been drawn to science and technology policy, starting as a young grad doing stints at the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. But being a journalist didn't scratch the policy itch, so she took a deep dive into graduate studies at the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh. After eight years in the U.K., she returned to Canada with two master's degrees, a PhD and a wealth of research experience.

Then politics came knocking. As Petrunic admits, "I've always been politically motivated." In the 2011 federal election, she was the Liberal candidate in the Conservative stronghold of Calgary East. She lost, but she did learn the mechanics of campaigning. In the Alberta election a year later, she ran in Edmonton-Goldbar – which the Liberals had held for 26 years.

She lost there, too. "It was soul-destroying." (3) And as a failed Grit in then still-Tory Alberta, the prospect of landing a research job seemed remote. She turned her mind to Ontario. "I asked myself, what if you took the amount of energy you invested in election campaigns and put it into environmental technology? How far could you get in four years?"

Which brings us to CUTRIC. If Petrunic is so convinced that auto and transit would benefit from being brought under the same innovation umbrella, why not broaden the organization's mandate? A good start would be a name change that dumps the word "transit" in favour of the more inclusive "transportation."

"That has been debated within CUTRIC," she says, explaining that it boils down to who pays the bills. It wasn't Ford or Toyota that stepped up to seed the organization; it was public agencies and transit manufacturers like New Flyer Industries and Thales. Thus, transit remains core to the consortium's DNA. "For a long-term name change, the auto companies would need to come forward," she says. "They need to show us the money."

It's a hard sell. Many CUTRIC projects only move forward with equal amounts of federal, provincial and private dollars. One point of contention is that public funds – such as the money that once flowed from Automotive Partnerships Canada (APC) – can only be used to offset academic costs. Industry costs, such as the hiring of dedicated project managers, don't generally get covered. As a result, says Petrunic, the auto companies "just won't take the projects as seriously" as other initiatives. It's why a Canadian company like Magna International will go to Michigan as part of an R&D partnership with Ford, as it did recently in lightweight vehicle materials. "The taxpayers in the U.S. offset the high costs that Ford and Magna were facing," she says. It also helps explain why automakers are reluctant to commit to an organization like CUTRIC by paying a membership fee.

Petrunic realizes Canadian taxpayers would likely frown on the idea of covering the innovation costs of big, profitable companies that already get plenty of handouts. But that's how the game needs to be played if job-creating auto R&D is to take root in Canada. "If we create a context that is lucrative and the return on investment is evident, then I do believe auto suppliers and automakers will put money on the table."

With that message, Petrunic has asked Ottawa for $185-million over four years to support a pipeline of more than 50 projects, including some proposed by automakers. If she's successful, we may well see a coming together of the auto and transit sectors at a time when the benefits of collaboration have never been clearer.

1. One of CUTRIC's first major projects is an electric bus demonstration trial involving eight municipal transit agencies in Ontario.

2. Transportation accounts for nearly a quarter of Canada's total emissions, up 32 per cent since 1990, according to Environment Canada.

3. Does Petrunic still harbour political ambitions? "Absolutely. I want to be a federal minister, not just a backbencher."