Electric vehicles: Sprouting a new industry
Apr 13, 2010 - Brent Snavely and Jewel Gopwani - Detroit Free Press
The race to develop electric vehicles is generating billions of dollars of investments as a new set of companies vies for a piece of this expanding global market.
Amid the excitement, Michigan has planted its flag as a center for advanced battery manufacturing.
Heavyweights such as A123, Compact Power and Johnson Controls-Saft are all building or planning to build plants that will make lithium-ion batteries.
In total, more than $5.3 billion in electric vehicle-related projects have been started or announced in Michigan, said Doug Parks, senior vice president of business development for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. That includes Ford's project revealed Saturday to build battery packs at its Rawsonville Plant in Ypsilanti Township.
But while Michigan has secured much of the U.S.'s initial battery manufacturing, it has not locked up its position as the hub for the electric cars of the future.
The presence of the Detroit Three gives the state an edge. But Michigan is facing tough competition from Indiana and California, where niche electric vehicle makers are cropping up with plans to compete against GM, Ford and Chrysler. And then, there's China, which has vowed to become a global leader in electric vehicles in three years.
"China is very aggressive," said Rick Stanley, president of Indiana-based battery maker EnerDel. "The Chinese government is ... helping fund a number of demonstration projects."
Start with the power
Michigan's strategy has been to secure battery manufacturing first with the idea that suppliers and electric car assembly would follow, Parks said.
That's largely because batteries are heavy -- about 600 pounds, EnerDel says -- and expensive to ship.
Michigan's effort to recruit advanced battery manufacturers began about four years ago. By January 2009, the state created $335 million in incentives related to advanced automotive batteries. Alex Molinaroli, president of Johnson Controls' power solutions division, said the incentives allowed "us to move in at a very rapid pace."
But incentives are just part of the reason Michigan is having early success in the sprouting electric car business.
Decisions by GM and Ford to assemble battery packs and electric vehicles here, for vehicles such as the Chevy Volt and Focus Electric, have also attracted more related business. Oak Park-based Azure Dynamics, for example, will install electric powertrains into Ford's Transit Connect van.
What's more, "The automotive talent here is second to none," said Jason Forcier, vice president of battery maker A123's automotive business.
Not the high-end home
But Michigan hasn't captured all the big, new players.
California is home to high-end electric vehicle makers Tesla and Fisker, both of which aspire to move down-market in the future.
Indiana, meanwhile, has landed the headquarters for Bright Automotive, leading battery manufacturer EnerDel, and an assembly plant for Think, among others.
Mitch Roob, CEO of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., said Indiana's low taxes, skilled automotive workforce, and central location are helping Indiana secure the new business. "It's been Michigan and Indiana," Roob said.
Keith Takasawa, director of product development for Think North America in Dearborn, said Indiana offered $17 million in tax incentives, which was more than Michigan offered. Now, Think is in the site selection stage for a development center. "We think Michigan is probably going to be far more competitive," Takasawa said.
But while Michigan battles other states, bigger rivals loom on the world stage. Chinese automaker BYD plans to launch its all-electric e6 hatchback in the U.S. by the end of this year, for example.
Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of global electrification, applauds Michigan but said the electric car race is far from over. "Every nation ... is looking at what they need to do," she said. "So, we have to compete with that."