Job Creators Bring Auto Turnaround to Life

The auto industry seminar hosted by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) was a fascinating opportunity to hear about the private sector innovation that is helping meet key environmental goals, while also creating jobs and revitalizing communities.

I attended on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). It was a pleasure to hear panelists‚Äîand not always those you’d expect‚Äîcommunicate the thrill of the technological renaissanceunderway and a deep commitment to protecting the environment and prosperity for the next generation.

While times still remain tough, over the past two years the auto industry has added more than 230,000 jobs since 2009, anchoring gains of nearly half a million jobs in manufacturing as a whole.

Speakers from private industry talked about the hard work of bringing innovative products to market, and how it pays off by bringing work back to the United States.

$100 million investment in Saginaw: “It may seem counterintuitive,” said Vince De Zorzi of Nexteer Automotive which builds fuel saving electric power steering systems, “but during our transformation, we’ve brought back work from Mexico, Brazil and India into Saginaw, Michigan.”

“We’re currently investing over $100 million in‚our oldest plant, built in 1953, and converting it into a state of the art electric power steering facility, which over the next few years will supply the majority of full sized pick-up trucks in North America.”

Private equity funds innovation: Michael Psaros of KPS Capital Partners, spoke about his firm’s private equity investments ‚Äìworking in close collaboration with union workers — to rebuild businesses making natural gas-powered buses and forgings for high efficiency engines. Both products help meet new fuel economy standards/ “The technology is here. America is a leader,” Psaros said.”These initiatives are to be applauded and we’re investing tens of millions of dollars behind them.”

An “exciting time for auto engineers: “We don’t clearly know what kind of power plant will be powering our vehicles out beyond 2025,” said Ryan Harty, Manager of Environmental Business Development for Honda North America. “Will it be advanced internal combustion engines powered by gasoline on ethanol or natural gas, or advanced diesel engines? Or will it be electric drive vehicles powered by batteries, or hydrogen fueled electric drive vehicles?

“It’s a very exciting time to be an automotive engineer. The race is on for us to meet the challenges of air quality, climate change and energy security‚The future of the auto industry will be determined by retail customers who buy these cars.. so we have to make sure that every product we develop will be better than the one it replaces.”

Small companies, big ideas: Making better products is the lifeblood of small companies, explained Atul Kapaida, CEO of Envia Systems, a battery technology firm. “We are very committed to lithium ion batteries and we have to make sure that particular economic and wallet argument works best,” Kapaida said. “We received a $4 million grant from ARPA-E in December 2009, and we developed a world record battery [with an energy density] of 400 Wh/kg. This is a moonshot in the electrochemistry business.

“What does this mean? A 150-200 mile [per charge, electric] car for $30,000 or less is not too far away. We were founded to make a mass market electric vehicle [possible].”

JCI Pioneers Stop-Start Technology: “I’ve worked in the automotive industry for 33 years, all in the advanced battery area, and clearly this is the most exciting time,” said Michael Andrew, Director of Government Affairs and External Communications at Johnson Controls, Inc. “At our UAW battery plant in Toledo, we are investing over $100M in establishing a new line for what is called AGM technology.

“It’s a battery that’s critical to the stop-start technology you’re hearing about. When the vehicle is at a stop light, the engine shuts off ‚ that technology allows you to achieve a 5-12% fuel economy enhancement. It’s also a lighter weight battery than the conventional battery it replaces‚ and the process we use to make this battery uses less energy and emits less CO2.”

Thevalue of long-term performance-based fuel economy standards in providing a predictable climate for investment, and in buildingthe next generation of competitive technology and jobs was a recurrent theme in the day’s discussions. Participants stressed that government, industry and the publicmust continue to work together to make advanced energy and transportation a priority if America is to lead in the global economy.

Panelists flagged retooling loans and grants, and the value they gain from working closely with the Department of Energy (here, here, and here) and the National Labs. “In addition to recovery act grants there is a need for a sustained and predictable partnership with DOE,” said Andrews. “We as an industry can’t afford to rest on our laurels, we have very tough global competition.”

Envia’s Kapadia concurred, citing the the strong investment by China and South Korea in R&D. He also told the story of theU.S. government investment in the Human Genome Project that had generated hundreds of billions in economic activity.

“I don’t think that this money we spend on claiming technology leadership is a waste‚ As a country we just have to make a decision about whether energy is important or not‚ if we can see the same kind of results on the energy side ‚ I am convinced we won’t be only identifying problems on [the next] panel, we’ll be taking about how many different kinds of electric cars, how many soldiers and‚ oil dollars have we saved ‚and‚ how much have we saved the environment over the next 10-20 years.”

Zoe Lipman is Senior Manager for Transportation Solutions at the National Wildlife Federation. She works to promote clean and efficient vehicle standards and technology, modern transportation infrastructure, and other climate and energy solutions that cut America’s dependence on oil, while rebuilding America’s economy, jobs and competitiveness.



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