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What Will the EV Revolution Mean for Detroit?

October 21, 2022

PBS NewsHour
Oct. 11, 2022
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

At the 1992 Detroit Auto Show, the first Jeep Grand Cherokee off the assembly line climbed the stairs of Cobo Hall and broke through a glass window, hauling Detroit mayor Coleman Young in the passenger seat. The entrance made an impression, especially on one future Jeep executive named Jim Morrison, who had just been accepted at dental school. When he saw the Grand Cherokee’s debut on the evening news, Morrison decided building cars looked like more fun.

Thirty years later, Morrison is now the head of the Jeep brand in North America, and he and the rest of Detroit are about to drive through a new glass window: An emerging era of electric vehicles. At this year’s North American International Auto Show, Morrison’s Jeep – as well as just about every other manufacturer – was showing off a new and future lineup of plug-in hybrid and fully electric vehicles.

Detroit and the global auto industry are on the cusp of a radical transformation. How the city and the industry navigate the electric vehicle revolution will have consequences for Detroit auto workers, car buyers and people across the nation. If the industry makes a wrong turn, many people could be left behind, experts warn.

Volkswagen, the second-largest car manufacturer in the world, predicts building EVs will require 30% less labor than internal combustion engine cars. Ford, which is aggressively transitioning to EV production, announced 3,000 layoffs in late August. EVs require fewer, more simple parts than traditional gas-burning cars, and the shift is already driving an overhaul at factories across the nation. But the vehicles will also require a neighborhood-level overhaul to provide access to charging for people from densely populated cities to rural areas.

Visiting Detroit’s 2022 auto show, the promise and concerns about the shift to electric were on display. For many automakers, a shift to electric vehicles means more investment in U.S. manufacturing. For Jeep, building EVs means investment in Detroit, Morrison explained.

The automaker has just opened a new Mack Detroit Assembly Complex, which is the first new automobile assembly plant in Detroit in nearly 30 years. Along with Jeep’s Jefferson North Assembly plant, these are the only two automobile manufacturing facilities completely within the Detroit city limits.

“We’ve employed 3300 new employees, all Detroiters,” Morrison said. “They’re working around the clock building the new Grand Cherokee. And it’s a great facility that is high-tech. It’s a great environment. You go in there and our workers have their Jeep hats on and Jeep backpacks. They’re part of the Jeep family.”

“We’ve got a great workforce,” he added, pushing back against concerns that there will be labor cuts as the industry moves to electric vehicles. “We can’t make enough Jeeps right now, so we’ll keep them busy.”

After a three-year hiatus following the pandemic, President Biden seized on Detroit’s North American International Auto Show as a venue to promote his administration’s support of EVs. “The Great American Road Trip is going to be fully electrified,” President Biden said at the show, highlighting that as part of the Infrastructure Law, the federal government is investing $7.5 billion to build a network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across America, and $7 billion to build batteries and other critical materials. “Whether you’re driving coast to coast along the I-10 or on I-75 here in Michigan, charging stations will be up and as easy to find as gas stations are now.”

Biden also remarked that Michigan is one of the first 35 states to receive funding to build electric charging infrastructure throughout the state.

Biden’s messaging was designed to counter the fear gripping some of the auto industry over the coming changes, especially around job security.

The president emphasized the role that unions will have in building electric vehicles, as well as building the infrastructure, batteries, and semiconductors. “We’re going to leave nobody behind,” Biden said, reassuring that union labor will be prioritized and displaced workers will be retrained. Even if fewer carburetors are going to be built, “we’re going to have to build an awful lot of vehicle batteries,” he said.

With a $52 million American Rescue Plan grant, a partnership between the United Autoworkers and the Big Three automotive companies — Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and Stellantis (formerly known as Fiat Chrysler) — will train workers and upgrade factories for the shift to electric vehicles. In addition, Biden said that the newly signed Inflation Reduction Act will give people tax credits up to $7500 to purchase both new and used electric vehicles to help make these vehicles more affordable.

“It used to be that to buy an electric car, you had to make all sorts of compromises, but not now,” Biden said. “Thanks to American ingenuity, American engineers, American autoworkers, that’s all changing. Today, if you want an electric vehicle with a long range, you can buy one made in America. If you want one that charges quickly, buy American. You want one that’s fast in the quarter mile, buy American.”

But despite the administration’s efforts, electric vehicles aren’t accessible to all Americans. The average price of an EV has been rising alongside inflation, now well above $65,000 according to Kelley Blue book estimates. While expanding manufacturing and tax credits should help bring prices down, access to charging will require that federal, state and private dollars are invested in neighborhoods across the nation, not just the most affluent, activists say.

“Putting the EV in Everybody”

Kwabena “Q” Johnson is a fourth-generation autoworker and the founder of Plug Zen, a Detroit-based electric vehicle charging start-up whose motto is, “Putting the EV in EVerybody.”

As a Detroit-based company, Johnson understands the importance of building the product in Detroit and creating more jobs for Detroiters, so Plug Zen has partnered with Detroit Manufacturing Systems to build its EV charging stations in the city of Detroit.

“It has to be in Detroit because [of] diversity, equity and inclusion,” Johnson said. “It should be more than just the products. The jobs that come from there entirely should come from those communities. We want to get everybody a voice. When it comes to the issue of global warming right now, you hear a lot of elected politicians speak onstage. We want every community to have a voice, because it involves everybody.”

Johnson says he also understands the needs of underserved communities like Detroit, and has designed its products to be accessible and to meet the needs of people who live in communities where people work close to home, charge at home, live in multifamily housing, and are disproportionately affected by climate change but might not be able to afford expensive solutions. Most of the big EV infrastructure investments are for corridor charging along highways and fast DC charging, but instead, Plug Zen has emphasized developing solutions for multifamily housing, workplace charging, and fleet operators.

“With 80 percent charging at home, these people who live in these underserved communities that rarely take the highways or these people that want to charge when they get home and they live in multifamily homes. How do they get access to charging?” Johnson said. “Because the incentives right now are basically for larger projects, not the level to charge them are multifamily. Well, you bring that cost down, it becomes more attractive for them.”

Plug Zen currently has a pilot program to give 100 EV charging stations away for free in exchange for the usage data collected.

A Truly Inclusive Mobility Ecosystem

Michigan’s state government is intentionally and strategically using state EV-related programs and support to ensure that mobility solutions are implemented throughout the entire state, specifically targeting areas that have been overlooked in the past or are lagging behind the development of neighboring regions.

“A truly inclusive mobility ecosystem needs to be built as a resource for everyone, not just those in high-income or regularly traveled areas, and our state has made a conscious effort to ensure lower-income and underserved communities have the same mobility opportunities that other regions do,” Michigan’s Chief Mobility Officer Trevor Pawl told the NewsHour, “With EV mobility solutions available, we can better support residents as they move around to live, work and play while still enabling a world that is greener and more sustainable.”

Pawl said that Volta and DTE Energy have partnered to design a program that will improve equitable access to EV charging infrastructure in Michigan by targeting locations – including lower-income and environmental justice-impacted communities – that have not seen as much investment by EV charging network operators to date as higher-income regions. Another project that helps address energy grid demand concerns in remote rural areas led by eCAMION and partners Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), DTE and the Village of Port Austin will install battery energy storage systems, which include DC Fast Chargers, which use very little power and are designed to operate independently and act as a buffer to electric grids.

In early October, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced two new electric vehicle battery projects that she said will bring in almost $4 billion in capital investment and create almost 4500 new jobs in Michigan. According to the governor’s office, these jobs are part of 30,000 good-paying automotive jobs — from line workers to engineers — that Michigan companies have announced in the past four years as the state builds upon its experience in automotive manufacturing and moves toward mobility and electrification in the future.

“I am proud that Republicans and Democrats worked across the aisle to build up our economic development toolkit and empowered Michigan to compete for every project and every job,” Whitmer said. “Together, we will continue winning investments in this space and become the preeminent destination for electric vehicle and mobility companies. We will work with anyone and compete with everyone to keep bringing supply chains of batteries, chips, and electric vehicles home to Michigan.”