Guests check out the Project Arrow vehicle after its first time on any road in Peachtree Corners. Photo: Trevor Williams

Think affordability is a problem for electric vehicles? The Project Arrow concept car may not be for you. 

The price tag for developing the battery-electric vehicle made entirely from Canadian components blew past $8 million for the government, hitting $20 million after factoring in the development costs shouldered by suppliers.

But then again, Project Arrow was never meant for consumers; it was designed to show that Canada can play with the best in the world when it comes to electric vehicles — and that the nameplates behind those cars in the U.S., both foreign and domestic brands, should look north when sourcing parts for the industry’s electric revolution.  

The sleek white crossover, named after a Cold War moonshot to build a Canadian supersonic jet for intercepting Russian threats over the Arctic, made its driving debut April 11 in Peachtree Corners.

“It’s on the ground, but only physically. In spirit, we’re up there, and we want to do everything together,” said Flavio Volpe, president of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association, or APMA, which conceived and led the project. 

Peachtree Corners was selected for the road test thanks in part to Curiosity Lab, its real-world testing ground for connected, autonomous and electric mobility — and also because its leaders spent time courting Canada. 

“We were very inspired by you putting your money where your mouth is and doing things differently,” Mr. Volpe said.

The outlandish bet on a functional zero-emission car came as parts suppliers were emerging from a huge industrial mobilization to fight COVID-19, and as the pandemic revealed that manufacturing in the Western Hemisphere would need a renaissance to decrease its dependency on China. 

“It really wouldn’t have happened if these companies didn’t agree that this may be the best way for us to tell the story,” he added during a luncheon conversation sponsored by the Canadian-American Business Council. 

When meeting large companies like Mercedes-Benz, APMA kept hearing that while they were working with a few Canadian firms, they weren’t actively sourcing from across the breadth of the industry. 

“We said, ‘Why don’t we get everybody together? We’ll make the car and we’ll come to you.’ It’s part of the reason we’re here. And we can repeat that 20 OEMs over. It’s a really tangible showcase. It works — better than doing a Powerpoint,” Mr. Volpe said. 

He added that the Southeast U.S., with no locally grown auto brand and a bevy of foreign manufacturers, has more “equivalency”with Canada than the Motor City and the Midwest. 

Reflected in the South’s story is the success of foreign firms in Ontario, Canada’s passenger car powerhouse, and Quebec, which boasts a heavy focus on fleet vehicles. 

“We don’t have Canadian carmakers. And so when you invest in Canada, we all become a little bit more Korean, a little bit more German, a little bit more American, a little bit more Japanese. And we work together,” Mr. Volpe said. “The cluster supports all those automakers, and what the Germans have done (in the South) with American states, investors and the workforce is incredible.”

While foreign firms traditionally bring over suppliers from their home country, a practice that has resulted in tens of thousands of jobs in Georgia from German, Japanese and Korean suppliers, Mr. Volpe said Canadian firms have a new window to make their case. 

“It’s the best opportunity for new suppliers into traditional automakers,” Mr. Volpe said. 

That’s thanks to the pressure to cut costs to get EVs to mass affordability as the U.S. government pushes to see two-thirds of cars sold here go electric by 2023, a goal Mr. Volpe sees as unrealistic but important as an aspirational target. 

It’s also thanks to the USMCA, the upgraded NAFTA that mandated 75 percent of each car be made with North American parts to qualify for tariff-free market access, up from 62.5 percent.

Brandon Branham, assistant city manager for Peachtree Corners and CTO of Curiosity Lab, helped make the case for the Southern automotive cluster when he traveled to Toronto to see APMA with the Pendleton Group, the Atlanta-based consultancy. 

Pendleton last year brought on Louise Blais, a former United Nations ambassador for Canada who also served as consul general in Atlanta for three years. Melding her loves of Canada and the South together during the trip created “sparks — no pun intended,” that led to Project Arrow’s Southern tour, she said.

“Why we’re here is really about building the continental edge for EVs,” Ms. Blais added while introducing the luncheon panelists.  

During the discussion, Canadian American Business Council CEO Scotty Greenwood, a former U.S. diplomat in Canada and longtime executive, credited Ms. Blais with orchestrating the behind-the scense connections. 

After lunch, attendees headed outside for the main event. The reveal was delayed a bit, to the point where the music — Tom Petty’s “Running Down the Dream” had to be restarted a couple of times — and smoke machines positioned on the edges of the road sprayed to life too soon. 

Eventually, though, the world’s only Arrow RL207 crept past a crowd of camera-wielding reporters and onlookers, turning into city hall and settling under a tent where invitees could take a look inside and under the hood — or the custom-developed frunk, in this case. 

Colin Dhillon, chief technical officer at APMA and the technical lead on Arrow, described how the team took a comprehensive approach to issues like cybersecurity and asked suppliers to flex their innovation muscles.

They delivered: ABC Technologies designed a frunk with a pullout mechanism that can support 500 pounds; Meridian Lightweight contributed castings and interior parts in magnesium and designed a chassis that was 3D printed by Vancouver’s Zaber Technologies. 

Winning the bid to design wheels for Project Arrow was Montreal-based FastCo, which sells to automakers like Kia, Hyundai, Mazda and Mitsubishi as well as aftermarket customers, where it is seeing more traction in the U.S.

On electric vehicles, achieving the right mix of weight and aerodynamics is even more important than on gas-powered cars, Ian Pavelko, director of technical services, told Global Atlanta. Reducing drag and weight can boost range by 5 to 10 percent, a dramatic difference as consumers battle range anxiety even on vehicles that now usually go more than 200 miles on a charge.

FastCo is tooling up the Arrow wheels (temporary name) for mass production, both for the aftermarket and for its OEM customers, but the goal is to generate further interest down the road.  

“Our real hope is by having our name attached to this a lot of the companies we don’t work with say, ‘Hey, you guys have these EV wheels? What’s going on there?’

That’s also how Mr. Volpe and APMA see it; buying the car outright may cost $20 million, he joked, “but you can buy everything that’s on it, and the most important part of this project is everything that’s on it. A lot of these companies are investing on both sides of the border and in the region.”

Canadian Consul General James Hill said the project is evidence that Canada wants to play a deeper role in the evolution of the automotive manufacturing sector in Georgia and the South.

“This is no sense of wishful thinking that this could be something bigger. It is the reality of the first steps in this area, and the first steps in creating an electrical vehicle with Canadian origins and a North American presence. That presence includes a partnership with Georgia, beginning right here in Peachtree Corners.”

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As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...