It’s been a Winter of discontent, as Shakespeare might say, in Michigan, as the state’s automotive economy steadily vaporizes. With sales plunging and two of Detroit’s Big Three threatened with extinction, the only real business opportunity, these days, is providing U-Hauls for people moving out of state.
But can Michigan find an opportunity to reinvent itself as the center of a more environmentally friendly automotive industry? That’s the goal of the state’s economic development officials, who will be handing out $400 million in tax credits, later today, to four firms that could help make Michigan ground zero in the production of the advanced batteries needed to power tomorrow’s green machines.
While there are still plenty of skeptics, there’s a growing push to replace – or at least supplement – the internal combustion engine with electric power. There are already more than a dozen hybrid-electric vehicles on the market, ranging from the Toyota Prius to Ford’s new Fusion Hybrid. And about 18 months from now, General Motors hopes to take the technology to a new level with the introduction of its Chevrolet Volt, a so-called Plug-in Hybrid, which will use battery power for daily commuting and a small gasoline engine for longer trips. Then there are the pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, such as Tesla’s Roadster and planned Model S family sedan, which will eliminate the internal combustion engine entirely.
“Mass energy storage is a critical need (that has) gone beyond the tipping point,” contends Eric Schreffler, sector development manager for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the quasi-public agency which will choose the recipients for the new tax credits.
The problem is that the fundamental technology needed by all these vehicles doesn’t exist in the U.S. True, there are plenty of research centers, across the country, working on the physics of lithium-ion and other advanced batteries. But with the exception of one small factory, in Indianapolis, the world’s supply of tomorrow’s power cells come entirely from abroad, and almost exclusively from three Asian nations: Japan, China and South Korea.