GM launches a new dedicated tech center in Canada

GM has opened a new Canadian Technical Centre (CTC) in Markham, Ontario just outside of Toronto, in a brand new building capable of supporting 1,000 employees at its full target capacity, including 700 dedicated engineers. The facility will support work done on GM’s advanced driver assistance features, its fully autonomous vehicle program, and infotainment center design and improvements – but the real story of this and other CTC facilities that GM is building is how it reflects the changing values and identity of the century-old automaker.

This is just the latest of GM’s tech-focused facilities in Canada, which also include a tech center in nearby Oshawa; an innovation lab in Kitchener-Waterloo, with easy access to the University of Waterloo and its world-renowned engineering grads; and an urban innovation lab to be opened sometime soon, right next to downtown on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. These investments in Canadian engineering and technical talent accompany moves made south of the border, too, including the acquisition of autonomous driving startup Cruise – whose team in SF works collaboratively with the technical assets in place in Canada, too.

I spoke to GM’s Ken Kelzer, VP of Global Vehicle Components and Subsystems, as well as CTC Director Brian R. Tossan at the official opening of the Markham CTC on Friday. The message was clear: GM wants to position itself as a world leader in technology, and a place where engineering grads and top technical talent looking to change the world will want to work, and where they’ll be able to make a meaningful contribution despite GM’s size and complexity.

Kelzer explained that the team in place at the new CTC would be working a lot on infotainment development and improvements (the first floor is dedicated to this, with engineering carts designed to simulate in-car infotainment systems peppered throughout), but that they’d also be working on key technologies associated with both advanced driver safety features and with fully autonomous driving, including lane-keeping.

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According to Kelzer, GM has managed to find a balance whereby the company’s ample experience in working on safety systems and actually building cars works together with an approach to cutting edge technology and software development that more closely resembles how startups and companies like Google work; the new CTC, for instance, features flexible, open workspaces with reconfigurable individual workstations and plenty of breakout rooms. The third floor is a wide open space with arching glass ceilings, an open, airy cafe facility and flexible event space.

In the end, it looks more like a Silicon Valley startup office space than it has any right to, even if it’s not quite a perfect copy of the original and the vibe is clearly more buttoned down. But for GM, it’s an ideal model: A workplace that looks and feels like some of the most exciting places that Canadian engineering grads have worked on internships and extended SV work placements, but with all the charms and proximity to family of home.

GM is also investing more beyond the center itself in the local economy and talent pipeline: it announced a new $1.8 million (CDN) scholarship fund for STEM education support, and will work on building out teacher programs for elementary and high school programs in partnership with educational experts, as well as offer bursaries for post-secondary students, with a particular focus on encouraging girls and young women to pursue STEM education.

There’s more to reinventing yourself as a tech-focused organization than building new facilities with open concept workspaces, but GM seems to be doing the hard work, too. Kelzer was candid about there being a learning curve from when GM was first working with a lot of startups, including when it originally acquired Cruise – but he seems confident they’ve since found their footing and identified what works about the startup model, and when GM’s traditional approach has value, too.