General Motors Corp. said yesterday that it will build the industry's first hybrid light-truck transmission at its manufacturing plant in northeastern Baltimore County, offering fresh hope to some of the 500 autoworkers still looking for jobs after the world's largest automaker closed its aged van assembly factory in Southeast Baltimore last May.
Although the $118 million investment will add no more than 87 jobs initially, the announcement was considered significant enough to be delivered by GM Chairman Rick Wagoner. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and a host of other political and labor leaders attended the event.
FOR THE RECORD - A front-page story Thursday about General Motors Corp. incorrectly stated that Ford's Escape hybrid SUV uses a Toyota hybrid drive system. Ford licensed several Toyota patents in developing its drive system, but the Escape's hybrid drive system and electronic controls are proprietary to Ford.
The Sun regrets the error.
The news came a day after President Bush challenged U.S. manufacturers in his State of the Union speech to develop new hybrid technology to help wean the nation off foreign oil and a week after the president said American carmakers, hemorrhaging revenue and jobs, needed to respond better to the marketplace.
"I jokingly said on the way down, `Boy, this sounds like a fast response to the State of the Union [speech],'" Wagoner said after the event at the Allison Transmission facility in White Marsh. "But we've worked on this for a while."
Company officials and labor leaders said the local plant beat out at least a half dozen competing bidders to become the latest front in GM's battle with Japanese automakers that have capitalized on the popularity of fuel-saving hybrid technology.
Industry analysts and investors have criticized the "Big Three" U.S. automakers for being slow to embrace hybrid technology in favor of a strategy focused on low-mileage SUVs and trucks that has resulted in massive losses.
GM is veering only slightly from that strategy, at least for now. The two-mode hybrid transmission will be installed in the company's new full-sized sport utility vehicles, the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, which will enter production in 2007 and be built in Arlington, Texas.
If successful, the program could expand to other vehicles and lead to more hiring in White Marsh, although replacing the 1,100 jobs lost at the city's closed Broening Highway plant remains a distant goal, labor officials said. The White Marsh transmission plant, which opened in 2001, currently employs about 440 people.
"The two-mode [hybrid] system can also be scaled for different-sized vehicles and be adapted for use in a broad range of cars, trucks and SUVs around the world," Wagoner told the gathering in White Marsh as giant video screens beamed a multimedia presentation and an inverted truck frame glowed with neon lights off stage. "Because of its clear advantage, we believe the two-mode system will become the standard, and we're open to collaborating with other manufacturers on this technology down the road."
The two-mode transmission will allow GM's new SUV models to operate on electric power, the gasoline engine or a combination of the two. It said that drivers could expect to see fuel savings of up to 25 percent.
GM adapted the transmission from its existing line of hybrid transit buses, which went into production in 2003. They operate in 29 cities across North America and at Yosemite National Park. The company has built 388 of the units, including 50 buses being delivered for use in Washington.
As a cost-saving measure, the transmission was developed in partnership with Daimler-Chrysler AG and BMW, leaving open the possibility that the system could find its way into a variety of cars at GM and beyond.
"We hope this is a beginning rather than just something that's going to grow only to that point [of 87 jobs] and then stop," said Donald R. Burks, shop chairman for Local 239 of the United Auto Workers, which represents non-salaried employees at the plant.
In keeping with the UAW contract, the 87 positions will be offered first to workers who lost their jobs with the closing of the Broening Highway complex. About half of those 1,100 workers retired or found jobs elsewhere in GM.
The rest are part of GM's vast job bank, which pays tens of thousands of laid-off workers nationwide until they find a new job within the company or retire. Trimming the size of the job bank is considered crucial to GM's efforts to cut costs in the face of losses that totaled $8.6 billion in 2005.
"On this 87 [jobs created], I'll go to work," said Bernard Holly, who worked at the Broening Highway plant for 38 years and figures he has enough seniority to win one of the coveted positions. He has already received training to work at the plant, which is part of GM's Allison Transmission division.
Broening Highway workers face a different environment in White Marsh.
The transmission plant opened under a unique labor contract. It includes flexible work rules that have become a model for other manufacturing plants and is one reason the work landed in Maryland.