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Oro Station auto park will be a game changer, say industry experts

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In Council Watch
Mar 17th, 2021
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Rendering of proposed Oro Station Automotive Innovation Park

Facility will have a strong focus on electric vehicles, alternative fuel sources; ‘It’s a bold vision, but it’s something that should’ve happened a while ago’

By: Nathan Taylor Orillia Matters

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on the Oro Station Automotive Innovation Park.

An automotive innovation park coming to Oro-Medonte is taking the concept to a level not seen in Canada, and industry professionals are gearing up to get on board.

The Oro Station Automotive Innovation Park will be located on Line 7, across from the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport. Built in phases over the next six to eight years, it will be a hub for research and alternative fuel testing, providing a venue for the automotive sector to get up to speed with the changing times.

As stated on the Oro Station website, it is “the ultimate Canadian destination for the racers and the restorers, the innovators and the educators, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. It’s a place where they all come together to form a unique community dedicated to all things automotive.”

“Automotive has been the lifeblood of our economy for a long time, but it’s been the traditional (side),” said Geoff Campbell, managing partner with Oakleigh Developments, who is behind the Oro Station development.

The classics will have a place at Oro Station, but a big part of the focus will be on alternative fuel sources, low-carbon options, and electric and autonomous vehicles.

“If Ontario wants to continue to be a leader in automotive innovation, we need to be part of that,” Campbell said. “Ontario really needs to be working on different innovative options.”

Keith Smout knows all about that. He’s the chief commercial officer with DS-Techeetah Formula-E (FE), a racing team that has won the FE world title twice. Think Formula 1 (F1), but with electric vehicles.

Motorsport will be a big part of Oro Station, which will include a motorsport club and a high-tech, 4.1-kilometre track that can be used for racing and testing.

Smout has years of experience with motorsport, having worked in F1. Seven years ago, a friend asked if Smout had been following FE. He was invited to Miami to help his friend run the commercial side of an FE operation. A once-skeptical Smout was sold.

“I was somewhat cynical, myself, at first, but it continues to be a massive growth industry as the infrastructure grows,” he said. “The electric revolution is changing people’s mindsets about what’s happening on a day-to-day basis.”

FE is playing a part in that shift. In addition to being an exciting spectator sport, “it’s environmentally friendly and has the most manufacturers of any motorsport series in the world right now,” Smout explained, adding FE is now about two-thirds the size of F1.

There are currently no FE races in Canada, though there are talks about bringing the series to Toronto. A facility like Oro Station could be an important factor in the ability to expand.

“It gives that opportunity for innovation,” Smout said.

As he did for his friend in Miami, Smout is helping Campbell with the commercial side of Oro Station, with one of the goals being to connect him with FE driver ambassadors.

Smout sees Oro Station as “a real growth opportunity for the area.”

“The economic opportunities to the area are massive,” he said. “This is just going to be another great attraction to the area and put Simcoe and Muskoka on the map even more. It has all the reasons to be successful.”

Similar developments and racetracks are not commonly found in populated areas, mainly because of concerns about noise pollution. That is expected to be minimal at Oro Station thanks to the focus on alternatives such as electric vehicles.

“It’s a bold vision, but it’s something that should’ve happened a while ago,” Smout said.

Even some luxury brands known for their strength and speed are committing to a cleaner future. Jaguar has set a goal to move to all electric vehicles by 2025.

“We can pretend all day long that we’re going to use fossil fuels forever, but the world has to change. That’s the reality,” Smout said. “Innovation is the key to the future.”

Pat Troy agrees.

The founder of Windsor-based Troy EV Consulting is involved in the development of commercial and custom electric vehicles and will have a presence at Oro Station.

Troy intends to develop hardware to allow people to convert their vehicles to electric. While there is no turnkey solution to do so, “the DIY community is awesome because there’s a lot of effort at the grassroots level,” Troy said, noting they are finding ways to convert pre-computer-controlled vehicles to electric.

It isn’t as easy to convert modern vehicles because of all of the digital components, but that’s another area of work that could be done at Oro Station.

“I see the market for that at Oro Station being greater than here in Windsor,” Troy said.

One of the main reasons is location.

“You have this affluent flow of people from the GTA up to Muskoka. You’re going to have a huge influx of people into that facility. People will be stopping at Oro Station, and that has huge economic benefits,” he said. “I’m excited to get there and work with all the other companies that are there.”

Troy visited the site in October 2020, when Campbell gave him an overview of the project.

“It gave me a really good rundown of what the site is going to look like,” he said, adding he is excited about the proximity to the airport, highways and populated areas.

He is also excited to have a facility in Ontario that will have a strong emphasis on electric vehicles and other alternatives.

He feels Ontario is at “a tipping point.”

“Previously, we really had no options. The electric vehicle market was largely controlled by California,” Troy said of the state that is aiming to phase out the production of gas-powered passenger vehicles by 2035.

Some people there have been “electrifying one vehicle at minimal cost to make California happy,” but it wasn’t a mainstream pursuit.

“Then, you had Tesla, and that changed everything,” Troy said, adding other auto makers are now taking electric vehicles more seriously.

He is looking forward to working at Oro Station with those involved with performance vehicles, saying it could be a way to make electric vehicles more popular, but he believes “there are all sorts of things that should be electric long before we look at performance cars,” including delivery vans and box trucks that are frequently stopped and started.

“Converting those things is where our focus needs to be, and that’s what I’m interested in,” he said.

Campbell can hardly wait to get Troy and others on site and see a community of like-minded people get involved with the fast-growing industry.

“I don’t think we’re particularly behind. I think everyone is in uncharted territory,” Campbell said. “We’re seeing changes happen very, very quickly. We’re at a point where people are saying, ‘It’s not a long-off goal. We need to act now.’”

“By putting them in close proximity,” he continued, “it’s kind of like putting fuel on the fire.”

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