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VOL. 46 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 6, 2022

No turning back as automakers go electric

By Tom Wood

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More charging stations, longer driving ranges should make electrics more palatable for consumers.

-- Photograph Provided

Here’s a good analogy about the nation’s ever-changing automotive conversion from cars with internal combustion engines to a fleet of battery-powered electric vehicles.

“A lot of people sound worried, but I like to compare it to leaving the horse and going to the internal combustion engine. So, now the motor is the horse, and we’re leaving it behind,” says Ferman Clark of Brentwood, a now-retired GM employee who worked at the Saturn plant in Spring Hill from 1990 through the mid-2000s.

“And a lot of the same concerns, if you read books, they had concerns about not using the horse with transportation and the unreliability and the infrastructure for the gas stations. Now it’s the refueling and recharging the battery stations. That’s the concern.”

With four major auto manufacturers (including Ford’s massive 2025 Blue Oval City project) in Tennessee, the race to produce EV cars and trucks and battery parks is gaining momentum in the Volunteer State.

Ford says it will invest $11.4 billion for EV plants in Tennessee and Kentucky, including $5.8 billion to build two battery manufacturing complexes in Kentucky with SK Innovation plus the $5.6 billion Blue Oval City auto plant and accompanying battery factory near Memphis.

“This is our moment – our biggest investment ever – to help build a better future for America,” says Jim Farley, Ford president and CEO. “We are moving now to deliver breakthrough electric vehicles for the many rather than the few.”

Similarly, General Motors is spending $4.2 billion to produce the all-electric Cadillac Lyriq and another $2.3 billion on its battery plant in Spring Hill with partner LG Chem, while Nissan builds the all-electric LEAF with partner Envision supplying the battery.

In Chattanooga, it has been reported that Volkswagen is considering expanding to add EV production. Volkswagen would add a second EV site to its Chattanooga manufacturing plant, as well as a nearby battery park.

Currently, some 40% of all EV batteries are made in Tennessee, and that is expected to increase.

“That’s been kind of a hallmark of assembly plants for quite some time when you build a new plant,” says Alisa Priddle, MotorTrend’s Detroit editor.

“But the new aspect of that is that supplier parks didn’t used to include battery parks, and that’s part of our transition to EV’s – that now, one of the most important components you need is the battery. Those are now a big part of today’s supplier parks.”

Much has changed since the start of the EV era, the most important for consumers being how far a vehicle could travel before having to recharge.

“About four years ago, the average electric vehicle had a range of about 90 miles, and then when the battery basically had run out of energy, it took about eight hours to recharge,” says Bob Rolfe. Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. “So, you can imagine the limitations. You can imagine what drivers felt. We call it range anxiety, right?

“Well, you fast-forward the tape and … thanks to (research and development) … those batteries now can allow a car to go 300 to 400 miles without a recharge and then can be supercharged up to 80% capacity within a 20-minute time frame.

“So now all of a sudden, I can drive out of state. I can go a lot farther than just simply within a 90-mile radius, which is not very far. And now it’s 300 to 400. So that’s where a lot of that R&D intellectual property was created, to allow this electric vehicle to really take off and be much more widely adapted to the consumer.”

Rolfe says that as auto manufacturers have taken a hard stance on the electrification of their products within the next 20 years, “We’ve been very intentional about recruiting these electric battery manufacturing plants.

“So for years, as we continue to lead the Southeast in that (auto manufacturing) sector, you can imagine with the electric vehicle, that transformation is happening right as we speak.

“If you’re in the business of manufacturing mufflers or combustion engines or powertrains – just think of some of the more important components in an internal combustion engine and now the world is going to the electric vehicle – you better reinvent yourself or you better figure something out because over time, as we know, a lot of these mandates from lot of these companies are saying by the year 2030 or by the year 2035, we’re gonna stop manufacturing internal combustion engine vehicles and we’re going to focus on the electric vehicle.

“So a whole new set of suppliers have come to Tennessee. And if you look at the electric vehicle, the new engine is the battery. So the electric vehicle battery is the new engine because these electric vehicles don’t have a traditional engine. They have motors on each wheel that are turned and powered by these battery packs.”

Rolfe says the biggest challenge for Tennessee’s EV industry is the supply chain challenge for chips, which are still manufactured overseas.

“It’s like 5 times the number of chips required to power and drive and navigate an electric vehicle versus the traditional internal combustion,” he says. “So you can imagine … think of … for every new vehicle 5 times number of chips from old world to new world.”

Dave VanderWerp, the director of vehicle testing for Car and Driver magazine, offers a cautionary note that while the future is EV, the ICE cars will still be around for years to come.

“One thing to keep in mind is the average age of vehicles on our roads today is about 12 years old. And so that means that even if tomorrow the entire industry chose to be EVs, it would still take more than a decade to get that critical mass off the road,” he notes.

“Even after a full 100% switch, there’s going to be a significant period of time before all the vehicles on the road are electric.”

But that day is coming.

“Automakers are moving to full EVs far faster than anyone thought. Like, by 2035 you’re going to see a lot of automakers, all of their new products are going to be EVs only. GM says they don’t expect to be selling new vehicles with combustion engines anymore,” Priddle says.

“I was just talking to Bentley. I think by 2025 they’re selling only EV’s. So, people are moving way faster than anybody thought. But the cars with internal combustion engines are still going to be on the road for a very long time. They’re not just going to disappear because you’re not being able to buy a new model year that has that in it.”

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