Auto industry future is state of Michigan’s to lose

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg likely didn’t drive on Michigan’s “damn roads: to get to the Detroit Regional Chamber’s policy conference this week, hosted at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

If he had, he would notice the reality here doesn’t always match the ambitious rhetoric.

Still, Buttigieg, who is the keynote speaker today, is a welcome presence in a state that is trying to figure out how to compete for electric vehicle investments as the automotive industry transitions.

The rubber will soon meet the road — and in many ways, it already has — if the state continues to lose out on critical investments from both the Detroit Big Three and foreign auto companies.

The competition for the automotive future is real, and thatís where Lansingís ideologically-driven political agendas are becoming more and more costly. The state’s capitol provides anything but certainty right now, and while that’s not the only factor in multi-billion dollar investments, it certainly is a factor.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signaled she at least takes the competition seriously. She signed on with Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin to the Regional Electric Vehicle for the Midwest Memorandum of Understanding to accelerate adoption of EVs in the Midwest.

And she’s urging the Legislature — and taxpayers to the tune of $135 million — to throw last-minute cash at Ford Motor Co. to keep its investments in southeastern Michigan by retooling plants here for both electric and internal combustion engine vehicles and parts.

Ford projects its investments would create 3,000 new jobs at local facilities.

Economically and symbolically, this is a fight Michigan canít afford to lose.

Indiana recently landed a more than $2.5 billion investment from Stellantis and South Korea’s Samsung SDI at its second planned electric vehicle battery plant in the country, in Kokomo, Ind. It should bring 1,400 jobs.

In January, Intel announced it would invest $20 billion in two new microchip-fabrication plants in neighboring Ohio, just outside Columbus. That’s excellent for the Midwest, which is competing with the South for foreign automakers and the labor they need to produce.

But it’s not good for Michigan. The historic presumption has been that production is always going to take place here. But that’s going to require real collaboration, and real money, to compete for the future of automotive talent and production.

Also critical is the state’s electric vehicle infrastructure, and that is an area where private-public partnerships are essential. Some of those relationships already exist here, and the Whitmer administration should pursue more of them with support of Republican lawmakers. There isn’t a ton of room for ideology on issues so critical to the stateís economic growth.

Demand is there for electric vehicles, whether it came naturally or by force. Certainly gas prices that have skyrocketed under the Biden administration are a contributing factor, and one that the president doesn’t seem overly concerned with.

Heís staked out a position for American consumers moving forward: Now is the time to transition to EVs. He even invoked the Defense Production Act to shore up supply chain materials critical to batteries for EVs.

And all of these moving parts, including supply chain issues and all that complicates in Michigan’s manufacturing-based economy, points to the reality that electric vehicles are here to stay along with internal combustion engines. Michigan’s goal should be to continue to lead the nation in automotive production regardless.

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