Ford to boost connected-car research in Canada

Ian Thibodeau and Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Windsor, Ontario — Ford Motor Co. will invest CA$500 million into Canadian research and development efforts, adding 300 software and hardware engineers in the country and creating a research and engineering center in Ottawa.

The new engineers are former Blackberry mobile software and handset employees “with extensive experience” working on the software that currently supports Ford’s Sync 3 platform. Those engineers will work to develop new infotainment systems, in-vehicle WiFi modems, driver-assist features and autonomous vehicles, a Ford spokesman said.

Ford said it also will add another 100 engineers at other new research facilities in Cary, North Carolina; Sunrise, Florida; and Waterloo and Oakville, Ontario.

The move more than doubles Ford’s mobile-connectivity engineering staff. Ford says it will quicken its efforts and expand services in the space.

The Dearborn automaker will be aided in Canada by grants from the Canadian and Ontario governments, each providing Ford a conditional grant of up to CA$102.4 million for the projects.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were at Ford’s Essex Engine Plant for the announcement. Ford is adding an all-new global engine program at its Windsor operations as well.

Trudeau applauded Ford, the leadership of Canadian union Unifor, Windsor leaders and the employees at the Essex Engine Plant where Thursday’s announcement was made for what he and others called a boost to the economy.

Ford’s connectivity news Thursday was accompanied by a look back at agreements Ford made in November during contract negotiations with Unifor, in which the Dearborn-based automaker promised to invest CA$713 million as part of the deal, including CA$613 million in its Windsor operations and CA$100 million in Oakville Assembly for a new engine program.

“There is more work to be done, but today is a big step forward,” said Trudeau. “(This) will lead to more good, well-paying jobs for Windsorites.”

The government money shows Canada’s commitment to retaining and growing its auto industry jobs, he said.

The research and development investments bring total investment in Ford’s Canadian operations over the last six months to CA$1.2 billion; on Tuesday, Ford announced work in Michigan facilities that boosted the company’s U.S. investments to close to $2 billion.

Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of the Americas, said Thursday’s announcement in Canada was about the future.

“This is not about looking back,” he said. “(This) leads to more high-skilled job opportunities for Canadians for years to come...(and) Ontario remains the manufacturing heartland in Canada, and a hub for research and innovation.”

Hinrichs said investment in the engine facilities will start soon. The new research center opened in March.

The new Ottawa research and engineering center will draw on the talent pool of skilled workers in Ontario for connected car technology.

“This investment demonstrates how Ford is transforming to be both an auto and mobility company,” Mark Buzzell, president and CEO of Ford of Canada, said in a statement. “With strategic partnerships, Canada can compete and win in the global auto industry.”

Ford said part of its research and development investment is connected to fuel efficiency research it is doing at Windsor and Oakville

The Essex plant has more than 800 employees. The 1.9-million square-foot facility opened in 1981 and workers there produce 5-liter V-8 engines.

Jerry Dias, Unifor national president, echoed Trudeau and Hinrichs Thursday.

The investment in Windsor “is about decades to come,” Dias said. “This is how we do things. This is how we find real solutions. This is how we find opportunities for young people...We get everyone in a room and we talk about it and we make commitments and we get it done.”

The Essex plant was a focus of Unifor’s labor contract talks with Ford last year. The contract, ratified late last year to cover 6,400 Ford employees, included CA$713 million in investments at Ford Canada facilities. The investment includes CA$613 million into its Windsor operations and CA$100 million in Oakville Assembly. The union did not breakdown the Windsor investment between Windsor Engine and Essex Engine, but most, if not all of the investment, is expected to go toward the Essex plant.

The company, according to the union, promised Essex Engine production of a new large-displacement engine for some of the automaker’s best-selling vehicles. Investment for that engine is expected to begin in mid-2018 for launch in 2019 or 2020, union officials previously said.

More than 500 jobs were expected to be created or retained under the deal, the union said.

Unifor said Ford said technology upgrades to the current 5-liter engine program at Essex would be needed for expanded use of a particular spray technology in time for the 2018 model year.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau