Biden makes electric pitch at Ford plant: 'There's no turning back'

Dearborn — Visiting the Ford Motor Co. Rouge Electric Vehicle Center Tuesday, President Joe Biden presented an American auto industry at a crossroads, forced to choose between two options: Spend around $174 billion and speed ahead to dominate the burgeoning electric vehicle market, or cede the race to China.

He said his plan will spark more electric vehicle manufacturing in the United States, secure a domestic EV supply chain, ensure a nationwide network of charging stations, make EVs accessible to average consumers and do it with a unionized workforce.

"The future of the auto industry is electric. There's no turning back," Biden said. "The question is whether we will lead or we will fall behind in the race to the future."

The remarks came as the administration negotiates with Congress over what to include in a larger jobs and infrastructure plan, which clocks in at around $2 trillion and has Republicans concerned about spending, especially on non-traditional infrastructure like that surrounding electric vehicles. 

The president's visit to the historic Rouge complex preceded Ford's planned unveiling of the electric version of the F-150 pickup, the best-selling vehicle in America, on Wednesday night. Biden pondered on stage whether he could lose the Secret Service to test-drive the truck, and by midafternoon, he was behind the wheel of an F-150 Lightning on the company's Dearborn test track. 

"This sucker's quick," he told reporters. "It feels great. I'll tell you what, these electric vehicles — I don't know if anyone has a stopwatch, but these vehicles can go from 0 to 60 in about 4.4 (seconds)."

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, greeted Biden at Detroit Metro Airport, where Air Force One landed shortly before noon.

Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, discussed the ongoing violence in Gaza with the president, questioned the planned $735 million weapons sale by the U.S. to Israel, and told him that Palestinian human rights are not a "bargaining chip," a Tlaib aide told The Detroit News. He later promised he'd "do everything" to keep her family in the West Bank safe.

Several other Democratic leaders — including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Attorney General Dana Nessel and U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee, Andy Levin, Haley Stevens, Brenda Lawrence and Elissa Slotkin — greeted him at the plant in Dearborn, along with nearly 30 other state and local leaders and union representatives. 

Upon arrival at the plant — which was decked out with banners declaring "A Future Made in America" and "Go Electric" — Biden joined Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, CEO Jim Farley, plant manager Corey Williams, and UAW President Rory Gamble on a four-stop tour focused on various aspects of electrification.

Kumar Galhotra, Ford's president of the Americas and International Markets Group, manned one station about Ford's EV-certified dealer network and spoke to the president about the need to build out the country's EV charging network, the steep costs of today's EV batteries, and Ford's research and development on battery technologies.

Workers from Ford's Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights also were on hand to highlight the plant's production of motors and transaxles for electric vehicles.

"The charging infrastructure needs to be there as the volumes grow," Galhotra said.

Biden also heard from Ford employees about the advanced manufacturing processes that will be used in the Rouge EV center, including robots and automatic guided carts that will replace the traditional assembly line.

Finally, Linda Zhang, chief engineer for the electric F-150, showed Biden the vehicle's underbody and talked him through some of the vehicle specs. The president showed strong interest, quizzing her about the weight of the battery (1,800 pounds) and the pickup's tires.

From right, Kumar Galhotra, Ford's president of the Americas and International Markets Group, discusses the need to build out the country’s EV charging network with President Joe Biden, Ford executive chairman Bill Ford and Ford CEO Jim Farley.

Analysts say Biden's visit highlights a project that is a model of what the administration hopes to incentivize: mass-market electric vehicles built in the United States by union workers. Biden said as much in his remarks Tuesday, speaking in front of a large American flag and a lineup of F-150s — including the electric version, a sneak preview ahead of Wednesday's unveiling — and other models. 

“Everything that these workers, this historic complex and this state represent, is something that I hope gets modeled around the country," he said. 

Biden's sweeping infrastructure proposal aims to build a network of a half-million charging stations nationwide; expand and implement new consumer incentives to buy affordable EVs; fund grants for retooling factories; provide tax credits for building EVs, including medium- and heavy-duty vehicles; subsidize research and development of new technology; incentivize building battery and semiconductor factories in the U.S., and more.

The goal is to spark a takeoff of the American electric vehicle market, which now accounts for less than 2% of new car sales, with the eventual aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to help reach a goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030 and net-zero economy-wide by 2050. 

Republicans in Congress have expressed hesitation to invest heavily in electric vehicles, which they argue aren't yet supported by market demands or reliable energy infrastructure. Biden noted during his speech that he has had multiple meetings with Republican leaders and he believes they can reach a bipartisan deal. The White House expects a counter-proposal within days, if not sooner. 

"We made one thing clear: We'll compromise, but doing nothing is not an option. The world is not waiting," he said. 

The U.S. makes around 12% of the world's chips and is home to only four lithium-ion battery factories, compared with 93 in China. The Asian superpower produces and sells more electric vehicles than any other country, and its market share is only expected to rise in the coming years. 

"Right now, China is leading in this race. Make no bones about it, it's a fact," said Biden, adding the United States used to lead in research and development globally but has dropped behind China and six other countries. "The future is going to be determined by the best minds in the world, by those who break through new barriers."

He trashed former President Donald Trump's policies related to the auto industry, including what he called a "short-sighted" decision to roll back emissions requirements, allowing the federal tax credit for electric vehicles to expire and repeated references to "Infrastructure Week" that became the butt of jokes in Washington

Biden also promised to wield the federal government's $600 billion annual purchasing power to support American companies and workers, pledging: "I'm not letting a single contract to a single company that does not hire Americans, have all American parts and has a supply chain that is an American product supply chain."

Existing "Buy American" rules allow the federal government to contract with foreign companies in certain circumstances. Biden signed an executive order in January that directs the administration to raise the minimum threshold of parts that must be made in America to qualify under the existing "Buy American" rules.

But even a bill sponsored by Michigan's two Democratic senators would increase the content requirement from 50% to 75% and still allow foreign contracts, but require that waivers be posted online with justifications. Both U.S. and foreign automakers source at least a portion of their parts from outside the country, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The White House did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for clarification on the president's statement. 

The issue of jobs was front and center during Biden's visit Tuesday: While the UAW supports the move to accelerate development of electric vehicles, it has repeatedly raised concerns about its potential impact on jobs. Electric vehicles require fewer parts and less labor to assemble, and new jobs in supporting sectors — such as joint battery ventures, suppliers and EV startups — are much less likely to be unionized.

The UAW has expressed support for the electric F-150 project, and officials and members of the union were repeatedly highlighted Tuesday. UAW member and Dearborn Truck Plant employee Angela Powell introduced Biden and said the president "supports workers like me" and "understands that in order for the future to work for us all, American workers can't be forgotten or left behind."

Still, Gamble, in a statement ahead of the event, urged Biden "to make certain that investments to bolster electric vehicle production and sales incorporate strong labor standards and ensure that the vehicles of the future support good union jobs."

The president repeatedly assured the audience — including several members of UAW Local 600, which represents workers at the Rouge Complex — that the jobs of the future will be unionized. "We will leave no one behind," Biden vowed. He also urged automakers to "keep investing in America" rather than abroad and to "deepen your partnership with the UAW."

Democratic legislation that reflects parts of the president's plan includes provisions that would require prevailing wage be paid for projects that receive loans or grants, require that projects hire workers locally or require that companies train workers in the new technology.

"I think America needs to be reminded that, as the president says, don't bet against us. We have something that no one else has, and that's the American worker," said Lawrence of Southfield, adding that training provisions will be key. Even if all the technology is ready, "if we don't have a trained workforce to build the new cars, who know the skill set that's needed for the batteries and other things, we're about to come to a brick wall."

The UAW and leading environmental groups have been in discussions organized by Dingell to craft policy that both aggressively cuts greenhouse gas emissions and protects workers' jobs. Several of the environmental groups sent a joint letter to the president Tuesday urging him to keep the electric vehicle provisions of the jobs plan in the infrastructure bill even as Republicans push for a more modest package. 

President Joe Biden, second from left, tours the Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. With him are, at left, plant manager Corey Williams; Ford executive chairman Bill Ford, second from right; and Ford CEO Jim Farley, right.

Some Republicans in Congress have argued for a more pared-down infrastructure package that would focus on traditional infrastructure and cost up to $800 billion. 

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, told The News Tuesday he’s wary of spending $174 billion on electric vehicles after the cost of recent COVID relief packages, especially “on projects that generally we think should come from the private sector, from the auto industry itself, with the agreement coming from customers who say, ‘We really want this.’”

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said earlier this month that Congress should be focusing on critical minerals, batteries and fortifying the electrical grid before providing subsidies for building and selling electric vehicles. Walberg said he agrees, and that money allocated to improve the grid and train workers first would be better spent.  

"I hope the president talks to the union rank and file when he’s there today and explains to them, very clearly, his understanding that this is going to impact their lives," he said.

"I think this administration needs to be honest with our citizens, especially the auto workers and say, this is what it looks like down the road. It can't happen overnight. But we want to do what's necessary to have you and your children, your grandchildren prepared for the new world so you're not left high and dry."

Mostly, however, Michigan GOP leaders, including co-chair Meshawn Maddock, used Biden's visit to bash Whitmer's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including placing sick patients in nursing homes and government shutdown orders that have permanently closed many businesses. The party also criticized Whitmer's push to close the Line 5 fuel line in the Straits of Mackinac and demanded she come clean about the details of her March visit to see her father out of state on a private flight.

"We know President Biden and Gov. Whitmer will portray themselves as champions of the working class when in fact they are anything but," said Ted Goodman, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party, ahead of Biden's tour during a news conference outside the Renaissance Center in Detroit. "Gov. Whitmer and President Joe Biden are in the back pocket of environmental extremists and coastal liberals who aren’t interested in helping working families and the people of Michigan. They are interested in a radical climate agenda."

In a statement, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel also slammed the president and the governor.

“Joe Biden and Gretchen Whitmer are too busy championing a plan that will be a wrecking ball to Michigan’s economy," she said. "Instead of destroying good-paying union jobs, decimating Detroit’s world-class auto industry, and creating a fuel crisis, Whitmer and Biden should pay attention to the crumbling roads around them.” 

Biden's trip was his second to Michigan since taking office in January. He visited the Pfizer plant in Portage that manufactures the COVID-19 vaccine. The visit also came around a year after former President Donald Trump visited Ford's Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, which was producing ventilators to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Twitter: @rbeggin

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

Staff Writers Breana Noble and Melissa Nann Burke contributed.