Roscoe has worked at the Sterling Heights Stellantis plant for 12 years, building the Ram1500 TRX pickups. In the coming years, he’s cautiously optimistic about building and tinkering with a new beast: the EV, as auto plants in Michigan and beyond reorient their supply chains in the next decade to being electric-first.
“Every plant does different things. Ford is known for innovation, GM is known for just being a classic all-rounder,” Roscoe, who preferred not to use his last name, said. “Then we’re known for making just like outlandish shit— the old-school, old-muscle, the 600 horse-power trucks that can jump hills and stuff like that.”
Retooling the auto industry to make EVs affordable, reliable and less of a novelty that requires persnickety chargers or parking spaces, will mean retooling priorities at the high level and behavior on the ground level. Transitioning highway corridors, city streets and suburban roads for a diverse driving population by the 2030s depends on the EV infrastructure becoming as seamless as the gas-fueled vehicle infrastructure.
Roscoe’s waiting to see which plants will get the coveted EV-fueled dollars in coming years: Even as auto sales fell in recent months, EV sales in particular are reporting their best numbers, reaching 7% of the market share of all vehicles sold at the end of 2022.
The EPA took the Biden administration’s climate and emissions goals farther with its April announcement that two-thirds of all cars and a quarter of all semi-heavy vehicles (i.e.trucks) would be electric by 2032.
Companies have started plugging into the promise: at the General Motors in Warren, Michigan, half or perhaps more than half of the cars at the company’s engineering building parking lots were electric, said Jared Engwis, a controls integration engineer for battery-electric vehicles for GM.
“We’ve had the Bolt EV around for a while, but now we are going to be making electric vehicles for pretty much every single form factor of vehicle possible, from trucks to sedans to SUVs,” said Engwis. The company announced plans to discontinue the Chevrolet Bolt EV earlier this year, placing bets on its forthcoming EV models— bets optimistic enough to dismiss the Bolt, which first debuted in 2017, as essential to its EV portfolio.
The depth of EV research and high-profile early adopters are not the issues at hand in 2023. Price, infrastructure, model availability and charger compatibility all stand in the way of widespread adoption, said Joanne Zhou, who assesses energy and emissions impact and studies market trends for alternative fuel vehicles at the Argonne National Laboratory.
“When we move into a more diverse EV owner portfolio, and, and especially when we encourage low-income communities to start adopting EVs, they don’t necessarily have a home charging accessibility or dedicated home charger parking,” Zhou said. “You would need to have more public charging stations, with workplace charging included in that category to support people charging their vehicle.”
EV policy experts and researchers believe that renewed commitment at the federal level and acceptance that “the future is electric” will let the market forces of demand and supply swing away from gasoline, said Eric Wood, a research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“On the supply side, it requires retooling manufacturing capabilities, building up new supply chains, being able to source all of the raw materials—and we expect that economies of scale will continue to drive down the cost of those components,” said Wood.
Utilities are another key player in making electric vehicles mainstream. The roughly 3,000 utilities in the U.S. are owned in four ways: by investors, the government, co-ops or tribal utility authorities. Over $760 million of government funding for EVs in 2020 went towards utilities — but not all actors respond the same way. Plans for two utility companies operating in Maine and Indiana were turned down.
“Not all of them are engaged in the same way in this conversation right now, so getting more people involved and kind of widening the conversation will be important,” said Wood. “Transmission and distribution become a really important part of the story— electric vehicles from a grid standpoint are really unique; they’re kind of a brand new category of electrical load for the utilities.”
Charging station companies and charger makers are enthusiastic about federal money for EVs, but warn that it’ll take time since funds have not yet been released from states to charging station partners, said Cathy Zoi, CEO of EVgo.
“While EVgo wholeheartedly supports the goals of Buy America, the reality is that a meaningful domestic supply chain comprised of numerous manufacturing and assembly facilities will take time to be able to produce at scale,” Zoi said on a Q4 earnings call. “Across the sector, we anticipate delays from contracting to installation for most applicants as the supply chain ramps.”
Even though Roscoe and Engwis work in the industry, they are skeptical whether an EV is the right auto for them personally. Neither Roscoe nor Engwis drive an electric vehicle as yet — both because of affordability, and for Roscoe, because he doubts he can fix an EV problem with his own hands or at the local dealer, who he surmises does not have specialty battery parts lying around. Engwis also pointed out the disparity dotting just the state of Michigan — people in rural areas or in the upper peninsula, “in the middle of nowhere,” won’t readily make the switch, given adverse weather conditions in the state’s cold winters and the “newness” of the EV that makes reliability doubtful.
Solving for these granular problems in each town, city, county and state so that driving an EV is about as much muscle-memory as a gasoline-fueled vehicle will occupy the U.S. auto industry’s race to meet its all-electric or nearly-all-electric goals in the next decade.
The tenor inside auto plants and factories remains equal parts upbeat and equal parts measured — for Roscoe, the future is inevitable.
Stellantis announced it would build its EVs at its Kokomo, IN, plants — so assembly line workers in Michigan like Roscoe might still wait a while before working with EVs. (He’s driven the Hummer EV, though, and is a steadfast admirer of how quietly it can climb a hill.)
“I would love to learn more because right now I’m kind of skeptical,” Roscoe said. “But at the same time, like it’s the future. You kind of gotta be open to it.”