Opinion: Clean American cars can drive auto innovation

Lisa Wozniak
Cadillac unveils the brand's first electric vehicle on Sunday, January 13, 2019.

More than 100 years ago, around the time that Detroit hosted its first-ever auto show, electric cars represented almost 40 percent of the vehicles on the road. At this year’s show, nearly 120 years later, all eyes are on a new breed of clean, powerful electric technologies that will define the next century of transportation. The question is, where will these advanced vehicles be built?

Since 1896, when Henry Ford test drove his first automobile on the streets of Detroit, Michigan’s fate has been tied to the success of our automakers. But today, American automakers are gambling not only their future, but Michigan’s as well, by failing to commit to building the next generation of cars for an increasingly global market right here in Detroit.  

By 2025, two-thirds of the sales of American cars will be overseas, but without a course correction, fewer and fewer of these vehicles will be built in U.S. factories. Dominating the global market are the fifteen countries, including much of Europe and significant portions of Asia, and close to two-dozen cities, that have announced intentions to transition to zero-emission vehicles in coming decades. Instead of aligning U.S. production with shifting demand for clean vehicles, Automakers are cutting jobs, over-investing in gas-guzzlers and discounting the skill and experience of American workers to build these advanced vehicles. This is disturbing, not only for the environmental and economic implications of saddling Americans with expensive, inefficient, dirty vehicles, but also because it’s robbing Michigan of a premier economic opportunity that can ensure prosperity for decades to come.

General Motors, for example, pays lip service to the electrified future, but has yet to back that up with U.S. production. Instead, their decision to cut nearly 15,000 jobs and shutter plants in Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, and Ontario in the name of technological advancement sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the American auto industry. To succeed in a new electrified world, U.S. automakers need to invest in clean car innovation and production, and ensure these advanced vehicles are built here, at home, by our skilled auto workers.

After decades of wage stagnation, growing income inequality, and the outsourcing of American jobs, supporting clean car policies and investment can reverse these trends, revitalizing communities across America by tapping the local workforce to produce globally competitive vehicles.

Despite the opportunity that clean cars present, the Detroit Three asked for a rollback of state and federal clean car standards that have produced the safest, cleanest, most advanced clean cars we have ever seen. This rollback risks ceding the jobs that should be based in Michigan to countries where alignment between automakers and policymakers is producing significant investment in local clean technology production.  

In China, policy and industry have aligned to maximize the use of local demand and skills, resulting in global automakers committing $300 billion to advanced, clean, electric vehicle technology over the next 10 years, with nearly half of the money going to China.

Instead of allowing a divestment from Michigan manufacturing, state leaders should develop a comprehensive strategy to foster local, clean transportation innovation, improved infrastructure, manufacturing and jobs. Governments investing in research and development, manufacturing and workforce advancement in clean technologies are setting themselves up for economic dominance in decades to come. Michigan can’t afford to be left behind.

By aligning clean air, infrastructure, manufacturing, and workforce goals, Michigan can avoid ceding its auto industry leadership. Designing, engineering, and building the next generation of globally competitive clean cars is how Michigan not only stays in the transportation game for the next 100 years, it’s how we win it.

Lisa Wozniak is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.