The newest Ford Mustang made a splash when it was unveiled Nov. 17. An all-electric SUV crossover, the vehicle has enough room for a cooler under its hood and can reportedly accelerate from zero to 60 in well under 4 seconds.
But one of the biggest changes it could usher in might have more to do with the autoworkers it ultimately displaces, as the assembly of electric cars requires just a fraction of the workers needed for traditional vehicles. And as more automakers pivot toward electric vehicles, the news that Ford's original "pony car" would be ditching a fuel-powered engine for a battery-run system underscored how far along the electric car-revolution has come in the United States.
Electric cars represent a significant step toward reducing reliance on fossil fuels and carbon emissions that scientists say are beginning to wreak serious havoc on the world.
About 1 million workers are employed in auto manufacturing, primarily for vehicles with internal combustion engines, out of about 12.8 million manufacturing jobs. But analysts note that electric vehicles require significantly less labor, raising questions about how the coming shift could slim down such a critical part of the U.S. economy.
Electric vehicles raise a whole host of questions for autoworkers. The vehicles' simplicity means they require significantly less manpower to make and assemble: the Chevy Bolt, for example, had 80% fewer moving parts than comparable fuel engines, UBS analysts have found. Their production is more simple and straightforward. And the parts they do use are now often made overseas.
"It could be that the cars become so modular and the assembly process becomes so straightforward [that] you picture them like Legos -- you kind of bolt them together. You could need even less skill to put those cars together," said Karl Brauer, an auto industry analyst who is the executive publisher of the Autotrader website and Kelley Blue Book.
Auto executives have not been shy about these changes.
Ford executives told investors that electric vehicles could reduce the company's work hours per car by 30%, and its capital investment by 50%. Volkswagen Group chief executive Herbert Diess said the switch "means we will need to make job cuts."
"Achieving this purely through fluctuation and partial retirement will be difficult," he said.
About 95% of cars in North America still use internal combustion engines, but that number is expected to decrease sharply in coming decades. By 2030, those cars could make up just over 50% of the market, with hybrids joining electric battery and fuel-cell-powered vehicles to make up the rest, according to a forecast made by the Center for Automotive Research in a forthcoming report. By 2040, the number of cars powered by internal combustion engines could fall to 30%, the center estimates.
Electric vehicles make up about 2% of the market globally. But it is a growing niche. Tesla, the leading manufacturer of electric cars, sold 360,000 this year so far.
"Electrification is really starting to take hold," said Kristin Dziczek, a vice president at the Center for Automotive Research. "That does have huge implications."
Compounding the issue from a jobs perspective is that many electric-car batteries are produced by companies in Europe and Asia. The electric Mustangs will be assembled in Mexico using a battery pack that will be made in Poland.
While European governments have spent time and money exploring how to build supply chains for electric-vehicle components, the United States auto market continues to revolve around internal combustion engines.
Even acknowledging the existence of climate change remains a political sensitivity in conservative quarters. Ford's marketing materials for the Mustang highlighted its power and acceleration, and not its sustainability, for example.
Then there is the question about the quality of jobs in electric-auto manufacturing.
Unions have helped ensure that American auto company plants are home to stable middle-class jobs, many of them in economically challenged areas across the Midwest. But technology companies and startups that make electric batteries don't offer that same history.
"If these new employers have a poor history of manufacturing labor relations, or if they treat EV components as low-value commodity products, it could result in more production under low-road conditions, undermining job quality in the auto sector," the United Auto Workers noted in a report about electric vehicles earlier this year.
At Tesla, where workers have said they make between $17 and $21 an hour, the company has had a tense relationship with its workers' efforts to unionize.
In September, a judge charged the company and CEO Elon Musk with violations of federal labor law over efforts to discourage union activity at the company. Questions remain about the pace of assembly and safety of the company's operation.
Because of this, the UAW has been urging policymakers and other stakeholders to get more involved in planning for electric-vehicle technology.
Rohan Williamson, professor of finance at Georgetown University, said that major automakers will have to reinvent themselves and their workforces.
"You're going to need a more technologically advanced workforce," said Williamson. "If you kind of picture the traditional car assembly plant, it's going to be much more about programming a machine to do a lot of that work."
As a result, he said, major automakers will have fewer and fewer jobs that can be performed without at least some training past high school.
Meanwhile, he said, vehicle assembly will become more highly skilled work, drawing a workforce that wasn't brought up in the traditional union environment.
"There will be a challenge because the view of the labor assembly plant worker is going to be more of a skilled computer guy," he said. "I think there will be some challenge to labor unions in an environment where you have electric cars that are assembled more by computer programmers."
Business on 11/28/2019