It was a thrilling moment, Phil Weicker admits — being at the California-based company he helped start, sitting in the all-electric vehicle he helped design and taking it for that first spin.
“That’s how you know that you’re in the right job,” says Weicker, 41, who is from St. Catharines.
“That still feels exciting, and sort of like you have that Christmas morning feeling. That’s how you know you’re doing what you were always supposed to be doing.”
From Laura Secord Secondary School, where he graduated in 1997, Weicker made a few stops before settling in L.A.
He studied electrical engineering at McMaster University, then earned his master’s degree at McGill University in Montreal.
It was early in the dot-com era and, while many grads gravitated toward communications, he “kind of went the other way, I focused on power electronics, controls.”
At the time, “it sort of seemed if you could squint your eyes really tightly and look toward the future, you could see that probably electric vehicles were going to become an important part of how we use energy in a smarter way.”
After nearly a decade working for other people’s companies, he and several others co-founded Canoo in Torrance, Calif., just south of Los Angeles, in December 2017. Weicker is responsible for powertrain and electronics.
It’s no small goal they have set for themselves: To change the way people get around the city.
Far into the prototype stage with a launch planned for the end of 2021, it’s a fully electric vehicle with a battery that can go for 400 kilometres.
It seats seven, but without a combustion engine the interior is roomer than in traditional cars. The backseat is sofa-style, bending with the curve of the car.
There is no steering column. It steers by wire using electrical signals. And you won’t ‘buy’ a Canoo the way you would normally purchase a car, either. Vehicles are sold on subscription.
Canoo describes itself as “your electric car membership.” For a monthly fee you get the vehicle, access to insurance, registration, charging and maintenance. When you’re done, you turn it in.
Another co-founder, Richard Kim, calls it “a loft on wheels” in a YouTube video in which TV comic Jay Leno, a well-known car buff, visits the Canoo plant for his “Jay Leno’s Garage” program.
It’s not a car, Leno notes, it’s “a weekly transportation pod, just to get you to work.”
Weicker believes the way people use their cars is changing, especially in large urban areas. More practical, less flashy.
“Our goal,” he says, “was to do something better, but not necessarily something better in terms of faster or higher performance.”
Canoo — with minimal environmental impact and extra large interior — is designed for people driving in the city amid traffic, he says, though it’s capable of highway speeds.
Weicker can’t disclose the price because it’s a developing, competitive market, “but we’re definitely focused on something that’s affordable.
“We think that solving the problem that electric vehicles can solve in terms of air pollution, greenhouse gases, only really matters if we do it at a large scale, right?”
At Canoo, his team has about 100 members, several of them Canadians from McMaster. One of Canoo’s suppliers is based in St. Catharines, THK Rhythm Automotive Canada Ltd.
“It’s still a little bit like the wild, wild west,” Weicker says of the electric car industry.
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“I think people are looking at the success of Tesla and that has certainly buoyed public interest … in electric vehicles, but I think there is room for others.”
Canoo — not named for any Canadian canoe connection, it was just a catchy title — is still “a new company, so we have to sort of build the plane as we’re flying it,” says Weicker.
“We don’t have too much room for error, and we’re kind of the definition of working without a net.”