Opinion: Michigan must lead U.S. on auto industry reform

Ellen Hughes-Cromwick

The global automobile industry is undergoing an unprecedented transformation as manufacturers, and increasingly drivers, embrace a future centered on clean and affordable electric vehicles. But it’s not at all certain that the U.S. will lead that transition.

Competitors like China continue to surpass the U.S., threatening American jobs and the prominence of our domestic automobile industry. 

Mayor Mike Duggan gives his remarks about GM's  $2.2 billion investment at its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant to produce electric vehicles.

U.S. leadership in the auto sector has sputtered — including in Michigan, which was once the national front-runner in domestic auto manufacturing. Michigan’s historical automotive prowess gives the state a real opportunity to revive its place as a global auto-manufacturing leader, but only if we start making real investments to reinvigorate the American auto sector. 

The stakes could not be higher. Over 394,000 Michigan residents and 4 million American autoworkers face financial uncertainty as we shift toward electric vehicles, or EVs. The only question is whether those cars get built by American companies or by competitors overseas.

Mark Reuss, GM President, talks about GM’s vision of an all-electric vehicles future and the $2.2 billion investment at its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.

Electric vehicles aren’t just the latest fad — they’re already here. Recent data suggests the sale of internal combustion engines in the U.S. actually peaked in 2016, while purchases of electric vehicles gradually increase.

But there’s been a lack of serious state and federal investment to encourage our industry leaders to push the boundaries of innovation in this rapidly growing market.

That puts many American auto jobs at risk. Every assembly plant job helps to create up to 10 other jobs in our economy, benefiting local communities. 

Now is the time for American automakers to modernize. I can think of no other state better positioned to capitalize on this momentum than Michigan, which has proven time and again it can adapt to the changing automotive landscape. 

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

Not only do we see ideas from federal lawmakers — including the introduction of bills and proposals from Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn,  Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. — but also from local officials in Michigan, who have taken up the cause for EV adoption. Last year, state lawmakers introduced multiple bills to help develop and expand electric vehicle charging station infrastructure across Michigan — a critical step toward increasing EV sales. These are important moves that demonstrate lawmakers see the potential benefits for Michigan if it shifts its focus to electric vehicle manufacturing.

Some U.S. companies are already making strides on these vehicles, which don’t need gasoline to run and require less maintenance than gas-powered cars. This week, GM announced it will invest $3 billion in electric and autonomous vehicle production.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her remarks about GM's first assembly plant that is 100% devoted to electric vehicles.

More:Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly: GM's first 'fully dedicated' EV plant

And that investment means big things for Michigan, with $2.2 billion dedicated to re-inventing their Detroit-Hamtramck plant into the company’s first location solely dedicated to electric vehicles. GM CEO Mary Barra said the company “believes in the science of global warming and believes in an all-electric future.” 

We have so much to fight for in this shifting auto market: a robust innovation economy, a thriving domestic auto industry employing millions of Americans and cleaner air for future generations. 

Ellen Hughes-Cromwick is the senior resident fellow for Clean Energy Economy in Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program and former chief global economist for Ford Motor Company.