Howes: Detroit morphing into hub for next-gen electrification

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

EV City may not deliver quite the same ring as "Motor City," but Detroit just took a giant step toward realizing that next-generation reality.

General Motors Co.’s $2.2 billion plan to rescue its endangered Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, and convert it into the automaker’s first operation dedicated solely to electric vehicles, underscores the city’s bid to be the real-world hub for leading the global auto industry’s journey to electrification — and changing the perception of Detroit in the process.

The Cruise Origin will be built at General Motors Co.'s Detroit-Hamtramck plant. Cruise LLC, the autonomous vehicle unit of GM, provided this rendering of the vehicle

GM will build the electric Cruise Origin people mover at "D-Ham," as the plant is informally known, the automaker's first effort to field a product without pedals or a steering wheel. It'll build an electric pickup offering varied trim levels and capability. And all of it confirms a GM bias many skeptics still do not concede: namely, that EVs are moving into the core lineups of mainstream automakers.

The question is not whether at least a portion of the vehicle fleets in the world's major markets will become electrified. The questions are how big those EV segments will become, and when the technology will reach critical mass with the buying public — thanks, in part, to increasing pressure from regulators in China, the European Union and the United States.

Volume automakers like GM, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV are signaling by their actions the increasing relevance of EVs to mainstream markets. Tiny battery-electric econoboxy plays are so last decade. The new plays are in the bread-and-butter segments of pickup trucks and SUVs of varying size, electrified versions of stalwart contributors to the bottom line set to be assembled in Metro Detroit plants.

GM's electric truck is likely to debut under a revived Hummer badge. Ford says it intends to build hybrid and all-electric versions of its iconic F-150 pickups at Dearborn Assembly even as it builds a Corktown campus devoted to autonomy and electrification. Fiat Chrysler is building a new plant on Detroit's east side that would produce three-row versions of the all-new Grand Cherokee SUV, as well as hybrid and all-electric versions.

Waymo LLC, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc., is using a vacant American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. site off I-75 to fit Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Jaguar SUVs with autonomous driving technology. Argo AI, Ford's autonomous-driving partner, is developing self-driving technology in Allen Park, and start-up Rivian Automotive LLC is developing its electric truck at its Plymouth headquarters.

The upshot is this: No other metropolitan region in the country, including Silicon Valley, is poised to engineer and build more next-generation EVs than Detroit; to do it mostly with union labor; to take such a leading role in delivering the reality of Auto 2.0, grappling with the engineering, regulatory and marketing challenges along the way.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan had it right Monday when he recounted his conversation with GM CEO Mary Barra about D-Ham's future: "Mary, I'm not asking you to extend the production of the vehicles of the past. That doesn't do anybody any good. But you've been headquartered in the city of Detroit for 100 years; we have a special relationship. If you're going to build the vehicles of the future somewhere, why wouldn't you build the future of the vehicles in the city?" 

Exactly right. And why wouldn't the city recognize the powerful symbolism of repurposing last-century auto plants to build 21st-century technology that, over time, is expected to revolutionize every aspect of the industry. Because EVs have fewer moving parts and are expected to last longer, their arrival in scale is likely to have a profound, read negative, impact on both white- and blue-collar employment.

And because Michigan plants assemble more vehicles than any other state, the coming transition to a blended fleet of internal-combustion engines and electric powertrains is likely to be most keenly felt here. Actively managing that transition should be preferable to being driven by it, as the United Auto Workers noted in a paper last spring called "Taking the High Road: Strategies for a Fair EV Future."

Engineering and building those vehicles here is a crucial first step toward shaping the destiny of the town that put America on wheels — and will continue to, powered by batteries in vehicles geared to one day drive themselves.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at detroitnews.com or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.