Perhaps the most amazing thing about modern vehicle assembly is that there’s really very little of the vehicle itself manufactured by the manufacturer. For example, when the Ford Model T was introduced in 1908, everything on the car was produced at one of Ford’s factories. Even the steel for the body and engine was smelted on site.

Today, it’s the suppliers on whom the auto industry is built upon; everything from sparkplugs to seats comes straight from a supplier. It makes sense for automakers to purchase these parts from elsewhere, especially when there are huge quality improvements and cost savings involved; if a power-window switch can be made for less money and last longer, that’s a win-win in anyone’s books.

But what happens when a supplier decides it wants to build a car? That’s been the case for Aurora, Ont.-based Magna International, one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers.

Magna is edging closer to the role of not only of automaker, but an environmentally conscious one at that. This Canadian corporation is aiming to become the world’s leader in electric cars.

While there’s plenty of green growing from Canadian soil with companies like ZENN and Electrovaya going for the low-speed electric market, Magna’s aiming for higher ground, and its size gives it advantages that the others can only dream of.

Announced at January’s Detroit auto show, the first signal was a partnership with Ford, which both companies hope will culminate in a brand-new battery-electric vehicle (BEV) by 2011.

Ted Robertson, chief technical officer and executive vice-president of new product creation for Magna, explained that the deal took over two years to put together, and that Magna will be responsible for supplying the “BEV electric traction motor, transmission, motor controller, energy storage system [batteries], battery charger and related systems. Magna will also share in the engineering responsibility to integrate the electric propulsion system and other new systems into the vehicle platform architecture.”

“Magna is a world-class automotive supplier that’s an ideal partner for our BEV,” said Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of sustainable mobility technology.

The next step came when Magna showed off its Mila EV concept car at the Geneva Auto Show recently.

Robertson is quick to point out that they’re still two separate programs, and that the Mila could potentially be “sold” to another automaker. “Without getting into specifics, we can say that the Mila EV does provide a preview of some technologies that could ultimately be used in the Ford BEV. Both projects make use of multiple Magna operating groups, and we share the synergies and lessons learned that go along with the collaborative efforts. While the Mila is a concept vehicle and the Ford BEV is scheduled for production in 2011, it’s of great value to Magna to be able to learn from both projects and share the experiences amongst our global teams.”

Robertson explains that Magna’s “green” strategy includes “developing components and systems for hybrid electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles and battery electric vehicles.”

Magna is also aiming to “reduce vehicle mass through lighter-weight components and source recycled/recyclable materials. We are actively addressing the need for immediate fuel-efficiency requirements as well as balancing the longer-term environmental goals,” Robertson added.