New GO buses will be assembled in GTA

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GO Transit will be receiving 253 new low-floor, high-capacity double-deck buses from Scottish bus maker Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL). Under the terms of the agreement between Metrolinx and ADL, a bus chassis assembly plant will be built in the GTA. This is expected to create up to thirty full-time jobs. Construction on the plant will begin in 2015. The first buses, which will be fully accessible, will be delivered the following year. Metrolinx has an option to purchase up to 150 additional buses over the five-year contract.

The lower height of the new buses is intended to improve service on GO Transit’s bus routes. Older double-decker buses currently in service cannot access all of the existing GO Transit terminals. As the new buses come on line, that problem of restricted accessibility will be eliminated. The lower floor and a longer, more gradual entrance ramp will also improve boarding and exiting for passengers. The buses will also have a wider area to accommodate wheel chairs, Metrolinx says. As well, there will be 120V charging outlets available for motorized wheelchairs.

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The Enviro500 double-deck bus is the flagship of Alexander Dennis Limited, the Scotland-based bus maker that will supply 253 new buses to GO Transit over the next five years. The Enviro500 was introduced two years ago with lower height, greater fuel efficiency and greater passenger capacity.

ADL is a leading bus manufacturer in the UK, with facilities in the UK, in Asia, and in North America. There are already 125 ADL buses in service in the Toronto area GO Transit service.

Metrolinx President and CEO Bruce McCuaig said, “These buses represent the future of our bus fleet and set a new standard for the service we provide. Their lower floors will allow customers with limited mobility to board with ease, and their lower height will allow us to bring double-decker service to all of our routes.”

Ontario’s minister of transportation, Steven Del Luca, noted that the new bus agreement would bring jobs to Ontario as well as improving service for bus passengers.

ADL buses are in use in several cities throughout North America.

Honda expansion a win for Ontario’s auto sector

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With a conditional grant of up to $85.7 million from the government of Ontario, Honda Canada is set to invest $857 million in its Alliston plant to make it the lead production facility worldwide for the next generation Honda Civic. The Alliston plant will be the first to launch the new Civic, and it will develop the processes and tooling that will be followed by other Honda plants around the world. It is the first time that a Honda plant outside Japan has been designated a global lead plant, the president of Honda Canada said.

The government’s 10 per cent portion of the investment, to be given over five years, will be used for “leading edge technologies” for vehicle assembly and engine manufacturing. It will also fund research and development in universities and colleges. It does not mean any additional jobs, however. There are currently about 4,000 workers in Honda’s three Alliston plants. As well, the approximately 1,500 suppliers who provide parts and services to the auto sector will benefit from the continued production. That business is reportedly worth about $2.1 billion annually.

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Premier Kathleen Wynne announcing the investment of $857 million to be made at Honda Canada’s Alliston plant.

Premier Kathleen Wynne called the Honda decision a “vote of confidence” in Ontario’s “highly skilled” workers and their capacity for innovation and leadership, and a vote of confidence in the auto sector in the province, which she called “one of the strongest and most diverse in the world.” Both the economic development minister, Brad Duguid, and Honda president Jerry Chenkin acknowledged that winning major investments like this is a struggle. The recent loss of a Ford engine plant to Mexico illustrates how difficult it can be. In that case, according to reports, government investment was not forthcoming to Ford because the company  did not provide sufficient job guarantees to satisfy the government.

Honda’s Ontario plants now produce 390,000 Civics and CR-Vs annually, of which approximately 100,000 are sold in Canada.

Toyota celebrating 50 years in Canada with Special Edition Corolla S

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From “humble beginnings” in a distributorship agreement fifty years to its current status as one of Canada’s most important auto makers, Toyota has come a long way. Now celebrating fifty years in Canada, the company has sold more than 4.6 million vehicles in this country. It has been making cars here since 1988, and now builds “Canadian favourites” Toyota Corolla and RAV4, as well as the Lexus RX350 and RX450 at its Cambridge and Woodstock plants in Ontario.

According to Toyota, the Corolla is its most popular car in Canada. No surprise, then, that Toyota chose it to help commemorate the fiftieth anniversary. For a limited time, the 2015 Toyota Corolla S will be available in two additional trim packages, being sold as the 50th Anniversary Special Edition. They will be available only in Canada, and built at Toyota’s north assembly plant in Cambridge.

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The 2015 Toyota Corolla S fiftieth anniversary special edition in Absolute Red finish. The limited-time offer is available to commemorate the auto maker’s fifty years operating in Canada.

The special anniversary edition being offered has 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels with black gloss finish, “unique” red interior stitching, wheel locks, and rear disc brakes. An alternate version has power sunroof and automatic climate control. These add-ons, minus the red stitching, are also offered to regular purchasers of the Corolla S as upgrades. Both are offered in an “exclusive” Absolute Red paint finish, and buyers can choose six-speed manual or CVTi-S automatic transmission.

Toyota recently marked another milestone in Canada, selling 100,000 of its Prius and Lexus hybrids. The Prius was first introduced in 2000.

The company employs a total of “about” 11,000, including its financial services. With dealerships included, the number of Toyota employees in Canada rises to 24,000.

Autos and parts drag down manufacturing sales in August

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After many consecutive months of improvement, manufacturing sales in Canada fell steeply in August, to $52.1 billion. The 3.3 per cent decline in factory sales was the first decline this year, but the biggest in five years. About half of the decrease was the result of lower auto and auto parts sales, Statistics Canada reports. However, sixteen of the twenty-one industries tracked reported declines.

The transportation equipment industry was hit hard, with sales falling 12.8 per cent to $8.9 billion. This was largely because of lower motor vehicle sales; these fell 12 per cent, after a particularly strong July, in which sales were up 13.7 per cent. Sales of motor vehicle parts dropped 10.8 per cent, to $2 billion. One analyst at TD Securities advised that the weak manufacturing performance in August should be seen as a “one-off” given the prominent role played by the auto sector.

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The main decline in August manufacturing sales was in transpiration equipment, including cars and car parts, according to Statistics Canada.

Other transportation equipment sales were down even more, dropping 40.6 per cent to $274 million. This followed a huge gain of 43.6 per cent in July. As Statistics Canada points out, sales in this industry are “volatile.”

Sales of petroleum and coal products also fell 3.4 per cent to $7.3 billion.

In Ontario, the August decline was 4.6 per cent, reversing the 4.8 per cent gain made the month before. Again, the main cause of the decline in Ontario was in lower auto sales. Aerospace product sales were also down 28.5 per cent.

Unfilled orders declined minimally, dropping 0.1 per cent, to $89.2 billion. Unfilled orders have remained stable over the past six months. New orders, however, were down 3.8 per cent, with half of that decline also attributable to the transportation equipment industry.

Ford hiring 1,000 at Oakville assembly plant

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There is jubilation in Oakville and Hamilton, Ontario, after Ford announced it would hire 1,000 full-time workers to build the new 2015 Ford Edge crossover utility vehicle. The hiring will bring total employment at the plant to more than 4,000. The latest announcement follows a $700 million investment announced for the Oakville assembly plant in 2013. That investment was to expand manufacturing capabilities to meet what the company called “surging demand.” The plant will be transformed into a global manufacturing platform, with new jobs added across the plant.

Ford’s president for the Americas, Joe Hinrichs, said in the company’s statement that the new Ford Edge “sets a new standard in its class,” and will show countries around the world “Canadian quality at its best.” The launch is one of the most anticipated ever at Ford, he said.

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The new 2015 Ford Edge is “loaded with more technology, higher levels of craftsmanship and greatly improved vehicle dynamics.” It will be built at Ford’s Oakville Assembly plant and shipped around the world.

The Ford Edge and Flex, as well as the Lincoln MKX and MKT are currently manufactured at the Oakville plant. The all-new 2015 global Ford Edge will go on sale early next year and will be exported to more than 100 countries.

“To see the transformation of Oakville Assembly into a global facility is incredible. We’re building on our strong team to support greater complexities in our systems, processes and technologies,” said Will Cowell, Oakville Assembly plant manager.  “Oakville Assembly has a bright future built through a deep commitment to Canada by Ford and strong partnerships with Unifor and government.”

Unifor president Jerry Dias, called the Ford development “a great example of why a national auto strategy really pays off.” The new jobs will generate “enormous” economic benefits, he said. The Unifor representative at the plant, meanwhile, said that the news was “more than we were expecting.”

It is also good news for Hamilton steel maker ArcelorMittal Dofasco, which supplies steel to the auto maker.

Canada’s auto sales soar; Toyota passes 100K mark for hybrids

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Auto sales in Canada were up 8 per cent in August, reaching 21 per cent higher than the five-year average for the month. A total of 171,560 new cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs were sold in Canada in August, according to the Global Automakers of Canada. Light trucks dominated, with 100,621 sales, an increase of 14.1 per cent over a year ago. Car sales were little changed compared to last year, with just under 71,000 sold. So far this year, Canadians have bought 1,256,649 vehicles, compared to 1,201,664 last year at this time.

The winner of the race for sales was Ford, selling just under 28,000 units. This was up 3 per cent year over year. Chrysler still leads in year-to-date sales through the end of August but Ford has narrowed the gap. For Chrysler, it was the best August ever, with sales 22 per cent higher than a year ago, largely on the strength of huge demand for the Jeep, as well as for the Chrysler 200 and the Ram truck. It was the auto maker’s fifty-seventh straight month of rising sales.

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Toyota Prius 2015. Toyota has sold more than 100.000 hybrids in Canada since 2000.

General Motors of Canada sold 22,111 vehicles in August, an increase of 4.8 per cent from 21,091 a year ago. As with the other auto makers, GM sold more trucks than cars; truck sales were up 7.3 per cent at 16,089 from 15,001, while car sales totalled 6,022 compared with 6,090 a year ago.

Toyota also sold 4.8 per cent more vehicles this August than a year ago, with 18,487 vehicles sold. Nearly half of Toyota’s sales were trucks (8,978), the best-ever August for truck sales, driven by a 32.2 per cent increase in sales of RAV4, the best month ever for the popular truck.

Another milestone was reached by Toyota, which marked the sale of 100,000 hybrids. The company says that more than three-quarters of all hybrids sold in Canada since 2000 have been Toyota and Lexus products, including the Prius models, the Camry Hybrid, and the Highlandler Hybrid. In announcing the milestone Toyota Canada president and CEO Seiji Ichii noted that Toyota hybrids use 30 per cent less fuel than conventional gas-powered cars. Four Toyota models, the Prius, Prius c, Prius v and Highlander Hybrid won awards for fuel efficiency from Natural Resources Canada in 2014.

Nissan also announced an August sales record, with Canadian sales reaching10,801 units, an increase of 31.8 per cent. It was the thirteenth consecutive month of record sales growth and the sixth straight month of sales exceeding the 10,000 unit mark for the Nissan Group in Canada.

Subaru Canada, meanwhile, announced its eighth back-to-back month of strong growth, selling 3,691 units, an increase of 10.5 percent over last August. Year-to-date sales also rose by 15.8 percent over the same period last year. The biggest seller for Subaru was the 2015 Subaru Outback: sales rose 74.9 per cent for its midsize SUV alternative.

Windsor, auto industry counting on new Ford investment

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The Canadian auto industry, which had the best second quarter in terms of operating revenues since 2007, but turned in a poor profit performance, could be on the brink of receiving a much-needed boost. The auto industry and several levels of government have been in talks with Ford of Canada about a significant new investment in the auto maker’s Windsor, Ontario operations.

The new investment, which has been reported to be in the area of $1.5 billion, would be for production of 1.5-litre and 1.6-litre engines for the Ford Fiesta. The company could either build a new plant or expand and retool an existing one. The two plants being talked about are the Essex and the Windsor engine plants.

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Ford Fiesta ST 2015. Windsor is competing with Mexico to land new investment in engine plant to build 1.5 and 1.6 litre engines for the Fiesta beginning in model year 2017

The president of Unifor, the union that now represents Canada’s auto workers, said in the Windsor Star that getting the new Ford work would be “a game changer for the auto industry in Canada.” Jerry Dias, said that the 1.5- and 1.6-litre engines, with a hybrid derivative, is the type of technology required for a long-term sustainable strategy for the industry.

Whether Ford chooses Windsor over Mexico, which is also in the running, will depend in part on how attractive the federal and provincial incentives are. The Windsor Star reported that Ontario has agreed to contribute $385 million, adding that if the federal government were to match that amount, the incentives would total more than half the value of the investment by Ford. This has not happened before. Government involvement in the way of incentives has typically been at the level of about 20 per cent of the auto maker’s investment.

Looking only at labour costs, Canada cannot compete with Mexico. Average hourly labour costs in Mexico are from $5 to $7, the Windsor paper says, while in Canada the cost, not including the Japanese makers, is about $32 an hour. However, the hourly rate of pay for new-hire auto workers was negotiated down in the last contract talks, to 60 per cent of the regular rate.

Analysts point out that wages may not be the only factor considered in Ford’s decision. Quality is also important, and Canadian auto workers are reputed to be highly skilled and educated. They also have experience building Ford engines. Ford’s Windsor and Essex Engine plants currently employ about 1,300 hourly workers. They build engines for the F-150 pickup, Mustang sports car, Econoline cargo van, Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator SUVs.

Second quarter operating revenues in the auto and auto parts industry were up 6.5 per cent, to $29.2 billion, Statistics Canada reported. Operating profits, however, were down 22.1 per cent, to $1 billion, as a result of higher expenses. Manufacturers had to add shifts and pay out more overtime to meet strong demand in the second quarter following a weaker first quarter.

Scientists make breakthrough in spinal cord injury movement

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For the first time ever, a quadriplegic man has moved his paralyzed hand using only his thoughts. That simple act is being hailed as a breakthrough in the search for improved movement for spinal injury patients. While other experimenters have used computers and robotics to move paralyzed muscles, this is said to be the first human-machine interface by which a person has been able to consciously move a paralyzed limb using brain waves.

The technology involved, called Neurobridge, was developed at Ohio State University and Battelle Memorial Institute. A thought-reading microchip was first implanted in the area of the patient’s brain that controls the muscles of the arm. The chip processes the patient’s thoughts, then transmits them to a specially designed electrode stimulation sleeve worn on his forearm, bypassing, or bridging, the spinal cord. The sleeve then converts the signals from the brain into movement by stimulating the appropriate muscles in the arm, and it does so in less than one-tenth of a second.

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The arm of a paralyzed patient fitted with the electrode stimulation sleeve that communicates with a microchip implanted in his brain, allowing him to move his hand by thought alone.

The research leader at Battelle compared the process to a heart bypass, except that instead of bypassing blood “we’re bypassing electrical signals. We’re taking those signals from the brain, going around the injury, and actually going directly to the muscles,” said Chad Bouton.

The team has worked on the Neurobridge technology for more than a decade, developing the algorithms and the sleeve to make it possible. Though still a long way off, the ultimate goal of the technology is to restore self-powered movement for brain and spinal cord injury patients.

The head of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center called the development a “tremendous stride forward . . . Now we’re examining human-machine interfaces and interactions, and how that type of technology can help.”

Tesla now biggest car maker in California

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Tesla Motors has surpassed Toyota as the largest auto maker in the state of California and is likely to remain so. The electric car maker said that it now employs more than 6,000 workers there, ahead of Toyota’s 5,300. Toyota, however, will be moving most of its production out of California by 2017, leaving Tesla securely in the number one position. The company’s main factory, occupying 510,000 square metres, was originally built by General Motors in 1962. Many are saying that Tesla’s presence marks the resurgence of California’s dying auto industry.

Tesla hopes to turn out half a million of its electric cars per year by 2020, and Tesla founder Elon Musk has been speaking of the need for battery “gigafactories” to accomplish his goal of making a mass-market electric car. He announced that he would build one gigafactory, with production capacity of 500,000 units per year, back in February, but so far has not specified where it will be. He has said that building such a factory, which would cost roughly $5 billion, is the only way to cut production costs so that he can sell more of the cars. With the addition of gigafactory-scale production, Musk believes they can lower the cost of the battery by at least 30 per cent, thanks to economies of scale, innovative manufacturing processes, reduction of waste and reduced overhead. The Model S Tesla now starts at $72,000.

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Tesla’s founder Elon Musk believes they can bring costs down by at least 30 per cent by mass-producing car batteries in gigafactories. One gigafactory now planned would be capable of turning out 500,000 units per year.

The Tesla batteries currently in use are made by Panasonic. Musk estimates that his single proposed gigafactory will be capable of producing as many lithium-ion batteries as are currently produced worldwide. Musk recently said that the world would need 200 of these gigafactories to supply demand, assuming worldwide demand for electric cars replaced demand for conventional cars. Current auto production is around 65 million annually, but that is projected to rise to more than 100 million in coming decades.

Is this switch to electric cars likely to happen on such a scale? Musk is optimistic, based on the way other disruptive technologies like digital cameras, MP3 players, laptops and smartphones have taken hold.

Google’s self-driving cars revealed to media for first time

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The race to bring a self-driving car to market could be getting closer to the finish line. Google, the biggest player on the field in terms of technology, showed off that self-driving technology to reporters this week, though it says a market-ready model is still six years away. Volvo, however, says it will have self-driving cars for sale by 2017.

The Google effort began as a Google X project in 2009. Now they are ready to demonstrate how far it has come, and various auto writers who went to Google headquarters in California to go for a test drive have described the experience. All say that what struck them most was the ordinariness of the ride in the specially modified Lexus SUVs. While test drivers sat in the driver’s seats, the cars drove themselves, and did so with a precision and rigid attention to road safety that one writer likened to riding with a driving instructor. The cars accelerated briskly, stopped at all red lights and slowed for cross-walks. The cars even swerved to give extra space to cyclists and larger vehicles on the road.

The cars drive themselves using a combination of stored information based on previous driving, and precise maps of the area where they are operating, including every traffic signal and sign. A Global Positioning System (GPS) tells the vehicle approximately where it is, and that positioning is further refined by roof-mounted laser sensor equipment that sees 360 degrees. Position sensors in the wheel hub, orientation sensors inside the car, and radar for detecting the speed and distance of vehicles ahead make up the main technology. All of  the data are processed to create a detailed map of where the vehicle is in real time. To deal with the more intangible aspects of driving, such as anticipating what other drivers will do in any given situation, the Google cars rely on a combination of past experience, signals, and probability theory.

So far the Google cars are enabled for driving on about 3,500 kilometres of road that have been thoroughly mapped. This is the challenge the engineers now face: to expand that range so that the cars can drive anywhere. They have not yet been tested in snowy conditions, and driving in the rain is also problematic.

One of the justifications for the autonomous car is safety. According to Google, self-driving cars would reduce the number of fatalities due to driver-caused accidents by 90 per cent. With approximately 33,000 auto accident deaths in the US each year, that would be a very significant achievement. The Google fleet of two dozen autonomous cars has had no accidents or collisions so far after test drives amounting to 700,000 miles (1.12 million kilometres). For its part, Volvo is intent on introducing accident-free cars to market by the year 2020.

Meanwhile, though Volvo says it can have its autonomous cars on the road in Sweden by 2017, those cars will be capable of Level 3 autonomous driving, which is the ability to drive by itself. Volvo already manufactures cars equipped with all the laser, radar and other sensing gear needed for autonomous driving. Its City Safety technology, consisting of a forward-facing camera, laser scanner and radar system, was designed to assist drivers. It warns drivers and automatically brakes or steers away from a collision. Taking it to the next level, which is the ultimate goal, could take years. Level 4 autonomous driving allows the “driver” to simply tell the car where to go then sit back and enjoy the ride.