“It’s the world’s most expensive business card”: Meet the man behind the first all-Canadian zero-emissions car

“It’s the world’s most expensive business card”: Meet the man behind the first all-Canadian zero-emissions car

Flavio Volpe built a $20-million concept car to show off Canadian auto parts. Now if only he could get someone to finance production

Flavio Volpe built Canada's first zero-emissions car

What compelled you to design Canada’s first zero-emissions car?
This started, funnily enough, with Donald Trump and his attempt to reopen NAFTA when he took office. I’m president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturer’s Association, an advocacy group, so Ottawa tapped me to take part in negotiations. We got a deal that was very favourable to Canadian parts makers. Because of that, I was invited to attend the prime minister’s 2019 throne speech, where he challenged everyone to make their respective industries net-zero. I went back to the office and came up with the concept for the Arrow.

Which is what, exactly?
The Arrow is Canada’s first lightweight zero-emissions self-driving vehicle. It is, as people have said, “the world’s most expensive business card”—a platform for Canadian parts makers to show off their cutting-edge tech. For example, its steering wheel uses textile computing to monitor vitals, so if you were to have a heart attack while behind the wheel, it could pull over and call an ambulance.

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The name Arrow evokes the Avro Arrow, the Canadian fighter aircraft designed in the 1950s that ended up getting cancelled. Not the best omen, is it?
I disagree. Before the jet was cancelled, our country had its own nuclear interceptor jet that could fly twice as high and twice as fast as anything the Americans, Europeans or Soviets had. It speaks to the power of Canadian engineering and what can be done with a blank slate.

Is there any way your concept car could end up on a lot near me?
The Arrow is not a consumer product, and the APMA is not a car manufacturer. People have offered us money to get it into production, but they’ve always been off by a zero. It’s incredibly expensive to produce a car line. In our industry, first you solve for tech, then you solve for price. We are showing what is possible, and I have little doubt that, in 10 years, we will see domestic brands similar to the Arrow at the Canadian International AutoShow.

But you can still drive it, right?
Yes! It is fully functional, can reach 180 kilometres per hour and has a 500-­kilometre range. Its first drive was in Atlanta, where they closed the roads for us. It was like watching my baby take its first steps.

All of this sounds very expensive.
The total cost of making the Arrow was $20 million, including $5 million from Ottawa, $1.8 million from Ontario and $1.4 million from Quebec. The rest came from the manufacturers whose parts were featured in the car.

The original prototype was unveiled last year, and you already have an Arrow 2.0. Was there room for improvement?
The Arrow 2.0 is a way to include more companies. We spent 2023 taking the original to auto shows and conferences all over the globe. That generated over $500 million in sales for the various Canadian parts makers that supply giants like Dodge, Chrysler, Nissan and Porsche—just to name a few. The design for the 2.0 will be the same, but the parts will come from even more manufacturers.

In the decade you’ve run the APMA, what’s changed the most?
Ten years ago, the Rust Belt was in decline, and critics wondered whether our industry should even exist. But the focus has shifted to new questions: What kind of future are we leaving our kids? And how do we take advantage of Canada’s mineral industry to forge a new future for the automobile?

You’re talking about Canadians producing EV batteries. What’s standing in the way?
The whole world needs our minerals, but we need to secure investments and shorten the process for extraction and delivery. We also need to show the world’s automakers that we are reliable and committed to responsible extraction.

You recently received the Order of Canada. Is that something you were expecting?
Definitely not. I’m proud of the work I’ve done for Canadian parts makers, but as a member of the manufacturing community, I’m especially proud of what we accomplished during the pandemic—converting factories to make PPE and ventilators. It was the largest peacetime mobilization of Canada’s industrial capacity ever.

Who did you first call to share the news?
My father—and I was so emotional that I could barely get the words out. He said, “Why are you crying? You did all the work.” And I said, “Yes, but you showed me the way.”

Your surname, Volpe, sounds like a car brand. Will you ever design your own Volpe?
There was a micro car designed in Italy in 1947 called the Volpe. They produced only a few. As for my own Volpe, who knows? I’m a car guy, and this story is just getting started. Ask me again in 2030.