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Chinese electric cars are coming to Canada, but you can’t have one yet: Don Pittis

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The Chinese are coming. After years of predictions that made-in-China electric-car technology was poised to dominate the global market, the country’s battery-powered cars will be driving on Canadian streets in a few months’ time.

To anyone already shopping for an electric vehicle, it’s not a surprise that consumers can’t easily opt for one as their next family car.

Despite attempts by various levels of government to encourage us to go electric and a sharp rise in annual sales, even familiar brands of battery-powered vehicles, such as Tesla and Nissan Leaf, and plug-in hybrids, like Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt, can’t seem to keep up with demand.

But that’s not the reason you won’t be able to get your hands on a car built by Chinese automaker BYD — the company best known in investment circles for its famous North American shareholder, Warren Buffet, who, along with his Berkshire Hathaway holding company, is BYD’s biggest private-sector investor.

It’s because the car in question — the BYD E6, pictured above — is currently being adapted to Canadian safety and charging standards.

But a fleet of E6s should be operating as taxis in Montreal in the new year, according to Martin Archambault, of the Quebec Electric Vehicle Association (AVEQ).

“They’re starting a new electric-car taxi company,” said Archambault. “Only using BYD cars.”

While we have yet to see its vehicles on North American lots, China is on its way to becoming the Detroit of the battery-powered automobile industry, according to engineer and electric car expert Matthew Klippenstein.

In addition to supplying its own enormous domestic market, Chinese electric cars are about to spread around the world. 

And just as North American carmakers were caught unprepared, losing out to Japanese and European brands when the oil crisis of the 1970s led a rush to smaller, cheaper cars, Klippenstein says there is a danger of history repeating itself with electrics.

Cheap forever

“American manufacturers … got used to making big, huge boats,” he said. “They thought oil was going to be cheap forever.”

Japanese car companies in particular — including Honda, Toyota and Nissan — filled that gap. And despite cars that initially suffered from what Klippenstein calls “horrendous” quality defects, those errors were quickly overcome.

“They got a foothold, they got a loyal customer base, and grew from there,” he said.

U.S. Billionaire Warren Buffett and the holding company he runs, Berkshire Hathaway, are the largest private shareholders in BYD. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

The quality of some Chinese-produced batteries has been roundly criticized in recent years. And Klippenstein says the safety standards of many Chinese-made cars may not yet be up to European and North American standards.

Still, their lower cost has already given them an advantage in developing markets, including Indonesia and Brazil, he says, at price levels where North American and European manufacturers have trouble competing.

One of those price advantages comes from the fact that North American carmakers pays for the cost of its research based on much smaller sales, whereas China can spread that cost over an enormous volume of domestic sales.

Canadians may right now scoff at Chinese manufacturing quality — but we also scoffed at the quality of the first Korean car sold in this country: the Pony.

That was quick to change as Hyundai proved itself by improving quality while keeping costs low. And older Canadians will remember a time when “Made in Japan” was not the recommendation it often is today.

Payback time

Price, of course, is an important consideration.

Even though most calculations show that an electric vehicle’s lower running costs — electricity being cheaper than gas, and the maintenance less costly — pays back the higher purchase price within four years, the price of North American electric cars has so far been a barrier to sales.

You may already be driving a car containing Chinese technology without even realizing it, according to David Adams, president of the Global Automakers of Canada, an industry group that represents car brands outside the Detroit Three.

“That’s what’s happening with a lot of the Volvos that are being made in China right now and being put into the Canadian market,” said Adams.

Canadians may already be driving a Chinese car: The owner of the famously safe Swedish brand Volvo is China’s Geely. And Volvo has promised to make electric versions of all its cars by as soon as next year. (Mark Blinch/Reuters) 

Volvo, the Swedish brand that is widely known for its safety, has been owned by Chinese car company Geely since 2010. To maintain quality in the luxury marque, Geely is using Korean-designed LG batteries made in China.

Volvo has promised to offer electric versions of all its cars by 2019. And as it moves toward that target, its best practices will be shared by its Chinese parent.

So long as North American-made electric vehicle prices stay high, the six per cent tariff on imported electric cars from China will be manageable, if they can keep their costs down.

Expanding Chinese footprint

Ted Dowling, BYD’s vice-president for Canada, says he can’t talk about when his company’s cars will be available to the public in this country.

But BYD is expanding its footprint here. The company already has contracts to sell its all-electric buses in several places in Canada, including to the Toronto Transit Commission and to a Vancouver-based sightseeing operation.

The TTC deal is still on despite the change in government at Queen’s Park, Dowling says. And plans for a Canadian assembly facility are underway, he says, but he can’t say where yet.

As for the BYD vehicles heading to Montreal, Dowling calls it “the best-selling electric taxi in the world.”

The vehicle’s battery pack should last a full day of Montreal driving, he says, and while the purchase price is high, as with other vehicles made for use as taxis, maintenance costs will be much lower.

Plus, Dowling notes, the payback rate for heavily used electric vehicles — including taxis, buses and trucks — is much faster than for consumer cars simply because they are on the road for so many hours a day.

And his thoughts on the quality of Chinese-built cars? He says he’s driven them, they’re good and he can’t wait until they reach the Canadian consumer market.

“If you look at the new cars that BYD is building now, they’re just as good as anything else that’s on the road today,” said Dowling. “I want to drive one here.” 

But, of course, that’s what you’d expect him to say.


Follow Don Pittis on Twitter: @don_pittis

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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