No.1: Marissa West
READ: The Power List: EV top 10
Canada is aiming to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which means we’ll have to change how we get around—and fast. The transportation industry is among the largest contributors to Canada’s carbon footprint, spewing out some 22 per cent of emissions. Light-duty vehicles, including passenger cars, SUVs and pickups, account for 11 per cent on their own. That’s why, in 2021, the federal government mandated that by 2035, all passenger vehicles will need to be electric. Imagine a country in which the roads are packed with electric cars, and highways are dotted with charging stations instead of gas pumps. Canada is funnelling billions of dollars into realizing that vision, creating incentives for car companies to go green and funding new public charging infrastructure. Marissa West, the new head of GM Canada, is making it happen on an industrial scale.
MORE: See who made the 2023 Maclean’s Power List
West was destined to work for General Motors. She was born and raised in Michigan, the heart of the North American auto industry, where three generations of her family worked for GM as engineers and factory employees. There were always GM cars around; her mother, Elaine, who worked as a dental hygienist, seemed to swap models every couple of years. Her father, Douglas, who held multiple jobs with the company, including as an electrical engineer, always performed routine car maintenance himself. West stood at his side in the family driveway, learning everything. As a kid in the ’90s, she showed an aptitude for math and science. She went on to earn an undergrad in mechanical engineering from Michigan State and a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. In 2001, West took an internship at GM, and over the next two decades she climbed the ranks, absorbing the ins and outs of the company.
Last April, West was promoted from chief executive engineer in Michigan to president of GM Canada. She’s now charged with overseeing the Canadian operation’s offices, assembly plants, dealerships and technical centres. The promotion came at a crucial time in the company’s 115-year history: GM has gone all-in on electric vehicles. In North America, it has invested more than $40 billion into EVs and autonomous vehicles. By 2035, GM intends to phase out tailpipe emissions on all light-duty vehicles, and the impact on Canada’s carbon emissions could be staggering, given that GM Canada’s vehicle sales account for some 15 per cent of the domestic auto market.
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Last May, GM began transforming its assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, into a full-scale EV operation, the first of its kind in Canada. GM spent $1 billion on the revamp, with some help from the federal and Ontario governments, which chipped in $259 million each. The overhaul was swift. In December, West met Justin Trudeau at the opening of the plant, and the pair watched as the first vehicle rolled off the line: the BrightDrop Zevo 600, a fully electric commercial delivery van. It comes with 600 cubic feet (hence the name) of storage space, takes less than two hours to juice up and can travel more than 400 kilometres on a charge. FedEx, DHL and Walmart have all placed orders. Overall, GM’s goal is to produce 50,000 electric vehicles annually at the plant as soon as 2025.
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GM Canada has teamed up with Netflix to make its EVs visible in the entertainment world
The company also wants to supply the batteries for those vehicles. It recently broke ground on a $530-million battery plant in Quebec. Outside of Canada, GM has also put $650 million toward a lithium mine under development in Nevada, which it hopes will provide it with prime access to a crucial material needed to build those batteries.
If West gets her way, millions of Canadians will be driving battery-powered GM vehicles by the end of the next decade. She still has some work to do, though. In Canada, only 4.5 per cent of new-vehicle sales are EVs, well behind Norway, where nearly three-quarters of new vehicles sold are electrified. The two biggest obstacles when it comes to EV adoption are insufficient charging infrastructure and high retail prices—typically thousands of dollars higher than the gas-guzzling alternative. Plenty of car buyers will be inclined to protect their retirement savings rather than the environment. And, because gas stations are more prevalent than charging stations (for now), car owners who take road trips will likely continue to favour old-fashioned engines. On the bright side, West is already looking for solutions. The small, sporty Chevrolet Bolt hatchback starts at a relatively modest $41,000. And GM is working with its 450 dealers nationwide, paying them to add charging stations in locations of their choice. If Canada hits its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, GM—with West behind the wheel—will deserve a big slice of the credit.
Check out the full 2023 Power List here
This article appears in print in the March 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.