Auto suppliers group urges slow transition to electric vehicles

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — An advocacy group representing auto suppliers urged Congress on Tuesday not to back a speedy phase-out of gas-powered vehicles, arguing the shift will cost up to 30% of supplier jobs.

The plea stands in sharp contrast with calls from the governors of 12 states (not including Michigan) to end gas-powered vehicle sales by 2035, as well as a general reticence on the part of most auto executives to honestly grapple with the negative implications of electrification on factory jobs.

Any changes to fuel economy and emissions standards "must provide for continued investment in reaching the full efficiency potential of the internal combustion engine," Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Ann Wilson said Tuesday. 

Ann Wilson of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association testifies before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday. She urged a slow transition to electric vehicles.

"If we move too quickly to an electrified fleet, we could lose 30% of supplier jobs in this country. ... Many of my members think it's going to be even more than that."

The governors of California, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and eight other states sent a letter last week to President Joe Biden, asking him to support ending the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, which would dramatically speed the transition to electric vehicles.

Biden and other senior administration officials have not committed to supporting such a goal.

Wilson was speaking before a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee headed by Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. Representatives from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the American Center for Mobility also testified.

While the suppliers group agrees the industry is shifting to electric vehicles and the U.S. must be a leader in that switch, "neither the current rate of consumer adoption of EVs nor existing levels of federal support for supply- and demand-side policies, is sufficient to meet our goal of a net-zero carbon transportation future."

Any federal EV policy must allow for the continued and expanded use of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in addition to battery electric ones, Wilson said. "A fully electric vehicle fleet will require significantly fewer supplier jobs."

To remedy that, Congress should include funding for programs aimed at training workers in new skills that will be useful in a more electric auto economy, and provide funding for retooling factories to make the switch. "It's no small feat," she said.

MEMA isn't the only group to raise fears that its workforce will get left behind in the switch. In early March, the United Auto Workers released a white paper expressing concerns that electric vehicles could cost jobs, as they require fewer parts, their battery engines are "mechanically simpler," and battery production is largely based in other countries. 

"Whether it is new technologies or new business models, the EV transition should not result in increased outsourcing or erosion of job quality in the industry," the union wrote.

Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley said last fall that the company is discussing making its own batteries as a way to stave off expected job losses. 

"We do have to solve for the reality that when electrification becomes 25% to 50% of our industry in the coming years, what are we going to do about the jobs?" Farley said. "One of the obvious choices is going into cell production, but it's a completely different animal than final assembly of a vehicle."

Ford announced Tuesday it plans to open a global battery center next year in southeast Michigan, marking a significant step toward manufacturing its own battery cells one day.

Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares has said the federal government needs to aid the transition to ensure there aren't negative impacts on jobs: "The point is ... how much time you give the industry to adapt to this situation and how much time you give the industry to train people to different jobs or readjust their company to this different reality," Tavares said. "The shorter the time we do have, the more brutal it will be, and the more social consequences it will have."

And General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra has said employees "should be excited about what we're doing."

"Because we see our EV strategy in total as a full-on growth strategy. We will expand," she told the Wall Street Journal. "Yes, some job assignments will change, but we will have opportunities for everyone to come along with us as we make this transformation. There will be more work available in that future than what we have today."

Biden has promised that switching to electric vehicles will create jobs, not lose them. He acknowledges most of those jobs may not be on the factory floor, but will be in installing and maintaining charging infrastructure, in battery manufacturing or in other emerging fields. However, unionizing those workplaces may pose a bigger challenge than expected, as many EV startups and Tesla Inc. have not expressed interest in unionizing. 

In addition to Wilson's testimony, industry leaders expressed support for legislation that would make it easier for autonomous vehicles to be deployed and tested on U.S. public roads and pave the way for changes to federal safety standards. Peters and Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota have proposed legislation to do that.

"Let's be absolutely clear, these technologies are coming inevitably. If we want to continue being the mobility capital of the world, we must allow innovation to continue and we cannot afford to wait until countries like China seize the moment," Peters said Tuesday. 

Advocates with Mothers Against Drunk Driving also pushed for quick uptake of a bipartisan bill that would require that all new vehicles be equipped with technology to prevent driving while intoxicated, such as driver monitoring for tiredness or distraction or alcohol detection sensors.

Twitter: @rbeggin