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‘The traffic jams were enormous:’ Why Magna billionaire Frank Stronach wants to go big testing his tiny electric car ‘SARIT’ on the streets of Toronto

One of the biggest names in Canadian auto-manufacturing wants to bring one of the smallest vehicles to Toronto.

Billionaire businessman Frank Stronach, founder of automotive parts company Magna International, says he wants the city to be a testing ground for one of his latest products — a tiny electric vehicle called the SARIT (Safe, Affordable, Reliable, Innovative Transit).

The three-wheeled ‘micromobility’ car, which can fit one or two people, spans 3.5 feet wide and 7.5 feet long. Four of them can be crammed into one parking space. According to the company, they would retail at roughly $5,000 each.

The company is marketing the SARIT to Ontario municipalities as a form of local travel for commuters. “Its main purpose is to bring you from home to your workplace and back home,” Stronach told the Star.

Recent lobbying records show that Stronach met with the city to discuss using the Exhibition Place grounds as a pilot site for the vehicles. Stronach logged meetings with Exhibition Place CEO Don Boyle and Councillor Mark Grimes — who chairs the Exhibition Place Board of Governors — early in August to “create a pilot project with the City whereby the vehicle could be driven on the streets.”

Toronto’s city council recently approved a plan to turn the sprawling 192-acre site into a “transportation innovation zone” to test emerging technologies like driverless vehicles, smart traffic signals and sensors, new paving materials or strategies to improve pedestrian safety. A city report offered that the grounds’ semiclosed off, low-traffic environment — with eight kilometres of roads and 30 intersections — is “an ideal place” to create a testing zone that would help the city “learn about, and facilitate the local development of, emerging transportation technologies.”

Stronach has also announced plans to launch a pilot in Peterborough, where city council recently asked Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation to be the first city considered to test the vehicles.

The company says the vehicle would reduce greenhouse gases, alleviate traffic jams and create a more efficient use of parking space. Research has found that drivers in large cities waste an estimated two to four hours stuck in traffic on a daily basis — a habit that increases stress, reduces quality of life and causes greater exposure to vehicle exhaust fumes.

And INRIX, a transportation analytics firm, estimates that traffic congestion cost the U.S. economy $305 billion in 2017.​​

Stronach said he was inspired to create the micro-vehicle after a commute in downtown Toronto.

“The traffic jams were enormous. And when I looked around at the other cars, almost all of them had just one person in the vehicle,” he said. “It’s an enormous waste of time and an enormous waste of greenhouse gases.”

As with most micromobility products, though, experts say the success of the product depends on how it’s manufactured and regulated.

“There are lots of issues to be looked at when introducing these kinds of technologies. Where are they allowed to operate — on the roads? In the bike lanes? How do you make them safe?” said Bilal Farooq, a professor of civil engineering at Ryerson University and a Canada Research Chair in disruptive transportation technologies.

“In principle, these cars are supposed to be greener. But how are they built? And what is their operational life span? Can they be recycled?”

The City of Toronto declined to comment, and neither Grimes nor Boyle — who met with Stronach Aug. 5 — responded to the Star’s interview requests.

A debate over the vehicles at Peterborough’s city council, though, could shed light on how Toronto councillors might view the prospect of a pilot project.

Councillor Kim Zippel said it’s unclear what impacts the SARIT would have on transit and the environment. “Not everything that plugs in is good for the planet,” she said, adding there’s questions about potential waste and energy consumption she wants answered.

Councillor Lesley Parnell said she wanted to know about the licensing and insurance requirements for the vehicles, and wants a commitment from Magna to cover the city’s liability insurance.

The council ultimately voted to move ahead with a pilot project.

“It’s another mode of transportation that will reduce so many people in bigger cars,” Parnell said.

With files from Ben Spurr and Taylor Clysdale



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