October 8, 2023 8:45 am

While the Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck won’t be officially unveiled until Wednesday, President Joe Biden got a preview of the vehicle at the Ford Motor Co. Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, where it will be produced, on Tuesday. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

“Who Killed the Electric Car?” is a 2006 documentary by filmmaker and environmental activist Chris Paine that tells how General Motors created a breakthrough electric car, the EV1, only to end production just two years after its launch in 1997.

GM didn’t just stop building EV1s, all of which were leased to customers primarily in California. It took back all 1,117 cars after their leases ended and crushed them, symbolizing the death of a promising new technology. Electric vehicle activists even held a funeral for the beloved cult car.

But in 2011, Paine released “Revenge of the Electric Car,” showcasing the production of new electric cars by — yep – GM, Nissan and Tesla as concerns about global warming were growing and interest by consumers in clean vehicles was accelerating.

Since then, the global auto industry has largely embraced electric vehicles as governments around the world are working to phase planet-warming gasoline-powered cars out of existence. 

But there’s a new enemy of electric cars trying to kill them again: Republicans beholden to the oil industry and who oppose government efforts to address climate change. Their tactics threaten the viability of domestic automakers that have poured billions of dollars into electric vehicle development.

Republicans are being led by former President Donald Trump — again a presidential candidate — who has characterized the United Auto Workers strike against Detroit Three automakers not a fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions, but as the result of electric vehicles.

Trump, in a visit last month to a nonunion, Macomb County auto parts supplier, engaged in his typical nihilistic hyperbole by saying moving to electric vehicles is “a transition to hell” and that “the entire car industry will be packed up and shipped to China” in two to three years. China is the world’s largest producer of electric vehicles, batteries and their components.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election at Erie Insurance Arena on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania. | Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

He and fellow Republicans blame the strike on President Joe Biden’s environmental policies, which call for two-thirds of all new cars and light trucks to be electric by 2032. Republicans say that will kill auto factory jobs because electric vehicles have fewer parts than gas-powered cars and trucks.

Ridiculing electric vehicles is an easy thing for Republicans to do. Most believe climate change is a hoax. And if the climate really is changing, they say human behavior is not responsible for it. In their minds, there is no reason to turn away from the internal combustion engine that has powered cars and trucks for more than a century.

President Joe Biden, many other world leaders and even some automakers see it differently. They view planet-warming greenhouse gasses spewed by cars and trucks as a mortal threat to humanity. 

About 40 countries are in the process of phasing out gas-powered engines. Six automakers, including Ford and General Motors, have pledged to end global sales of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040.

The Biden administration is handing out billions of dollars in cash and tax credits to U.S. automakers and battery manufacturers in a move to lessen dependence on China, which dominates raw materials sourcing and refining, and battery cell production.

But Republican lawmakers in Washington are taking aim at Ford’s $3.5 billion battery plant in Marshall that licenses battery technology from China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., the world’s largest battery maker.

Starting next year, only vehicles that have certain battery components from countries friendly to the U.S. qualify for the $7,500 consumer tax credit in the Inflation Reduction Act. Republicans are investigating whether Ford’s licensing agreement with CATL violates the “foreign entities of concern” provision.

Ford has paused work on its Marshall plant, which has received $1.8 billion in state financial incentives, amid the contentious UAW strike. Some experts say Ford may be rethinking the factory, expected to employ 2,500 workers, in light of the dispute and Republican opposition to it.

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, a Macomb County Republican, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that the pause is “GREAT news” for Michigan. “Chinese technology has no place in our country and I am glad to see this battery plant be put on hold.” 

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain at a President Donald Trump rally in Washington Twp. on April 2, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

House Select Committee on China Chair Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) called on Ford to scrap the project.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, now the U.S. Energy Secretary, more than a decade ago blamed Republican opposition to clean energy legislation for China’s dominance in electric vehicles and other green technologies.

Writing in Politico in 2012, Granholm accused Republicans of being “Manchurian candidates” by opposing the kind of government investment in new technologies that China was making. The GOP, she said, was helping China “win the gold. And smiling all the way.”

She was right. The Detroit Three are lagging far behind China in electric car production, as well as American automaker Tesla.

“Detroit automakers have no choice but to sustain their pursuit of electrics,” Michael Dunne, a consultant and former Asian auto executive told me. “The alternative is capitulation to China. 

“The world’s largest market by far, China, and Europe are going electric,” he said. “America is already seven to 10 years behind. Further delays will only widen the gap.”

But Republicans aren’t looking to make it easy for Detroit to catch up.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.

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