GM’s Brian Tossan explains how GM is tapping into Ontario’s startup and high-tech culture. 

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Tossan says urban congestion offers opportunities for new-mobility solutions(Photo: GM)

Brian Tossan heads General Motors’ new Canadian Technical Centre in Markham north of Toronto. The 150,000 square foot facility develops new autonomous vehicle software and controls, active safety and vehicle dynamics systems, infotainment and connected vehicle technologies. The Canadian outpost, located less than 250 miles from GM’s headquarters in Detroit, is a high-tech hotspot that is looking to grow. 

Arjen Bongard: First of all, why is GM here? 

Brian Tossan: We’re here to take advantage of a very rich ecosystem, particularly in the Toronto-Kitchener-Waterloo corridor. It’s a very talent-rich area that is very pro-innovation and it has some of the leading universities. We’re part of a very dense information and communication ecosystem here with almost 400 ICT firms operating just in this region north of Toronto. There’s a lot of startup activity, which allows us to establish some amazing collaborations and there’s a mature industry here as well, with a lot of software talent available. 

What is your focus here in Markham? 

Our growth mandate focuses on three areas: First, connected vehicle technology and the development and design of next-generation infotainment systems. Second, advanced active safety and vehicle dynamics. And third, software diagnostics in the autonomous space. 

How do you decide what you do yourself and what you outsource? 

We make an inventory of what’s available in the ecosystem. Then we look at where we have mutually aligned objectives and then natural partnerships tend to occur.  

The so-called co-op system, whereby engineering students each year spend a relatively long stretch in a real work environment, is generally seen as a big driver of talent here. Do you participate in the scheme? 

Work-integrated learning is really powerful and we are very much engaged in the Canadian university co-op system. We run up to two dozen co-ops in our center and we expect that to grow. It’s a great way to take advantage of a world-class university education and we very quickly apply it to solve problems. We don’t just see the co-op system as a great opportunity to develop talent, but often also as a tremendous opportunity to innovate. We also sponsor collegiate competitions, where we challenge students to undertake different tasks. We get a tremendous return on investment. 

Given your growth mandate, you’re hiring at the moment. Can you offer competitive salaries? 

We want to make sure we’re competitive on all fronts. We also feel we offer compelling reasons to join us. We’re investing in the future of personal mobility and a lot of people are energized by that. Second, we’re making sure we are talking about putting the customer in the center of what we do. There’s a lot of talk about technology, but we’re not doing tech for tech’s sake. We aim to solve real customer problems. 

Does Markham compete with other GM tech centers, for example in Shanghai and elsewhere? 

Innovation and engineering takes place in many centers, so it’s definitely a global effort. Canada is a high-growth center and we are helped by the availability of talent and the richness of the ecoystem here. 

Does the sale of Opel earlier this year mean more work is coming your way? 

The global engineering portfolio is consistently being realigned. Europe certainly had a lot of responsibility and, to the extent that needs to be reshuffled, it’s being done. Technology is moving very fast, so I don’t think we’re ever in a static state. 

Every major city suffers its share of traffic problems, but I was struck by the amount of congestion in and around Toronto. Are you involved in doing something about this? 

True, there’s a sheer endless sea of commuters waiting in traffic, but we also see an endless sea of innovation opportunities. Think about all the ways we could reinvent transportation. We think there’s a bright future for multi-modal transportation and transportation as a service (TaaS). We launched a pilot project with Maven (GM’s car-sharing company) in the Kitchener-Waterloo area and we are actively collecting data.  

And why do these projects take so long? 

To some extent, some of the solutions are city-dependent, especially if a city’s infrastructure is part of the solution.