Revving up employment picture at GM plant

January 29, 2010|By Jay Hancock

Amazing what a difference a sensible law can make.

Two years ago, Congress and President George W. Bush agreed to reduce pollution and America's addiction to overseas oil by requiring automobiles to get better mileage. Now, General Motors is spending $246 million to expand its White Marsh plant and make its own electric motors, giving Baltimore a ride on the auto-technology pace car.

Barring an unlikely decision to resurrect GM's auto-assembly plant here, it's hard to imagine better news for regional manufacturing. The White Marsh plant, which has been making transmissions for a decade, gets a second product and a sweet spot in GM's portfolio.

The plant will be part of automobile evolution, not revolution, which is where it wants to be.

Some were disappointed it won't be making motors for the Chevy Volt, the famous plug-in car due next year. But with an estimated price of $40,000 in a weak economy and comparisons to a golf cart, the Volt is unlikely to be the next Toyota Prius or something similarly popular.

Instead, the motors White Marsh makes will give Americans the SUVs and trucks they love with the improved gas mileage they need.

The plant already produces transmissions for hybrid Cadillac Escalades and Chevy Silverados and Tahoes, but the electric motors for those vehicles are outsourced to Mexico. Now the jobs are coming here. GM will make the motors itself.

The White Marsh factory in Baltimore County "will be the equivalent of the Chevy engine plant in Tonawanda, N.Y.," says auto analyst John Wolkonowicz, with IHS Global Insight. That is to say: Employing hundreds, not thousands, but a critical piece of the company.

The Maryland motors, he said, "are going to be the heart of a large number of vehicles in the not-too-distant future. By 2020 or 2025, we're expecting a significant portion of vehicles sold in this country to be hybrids."

Hybrids have gas engines but boost mileage with power at the right times from electric motors. They're one of several promising ways of meeting Congress' stricter efficiency standards and possibly the most economical.

At GM, "they sincerely believe this is a long-term, critical technology in auto," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Auto Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "They need to find technology that will help them improve the fuel economy of vehicles by about 35 percent" - at a reasonable cost.

A Silverado truck gets 15 miles per gallon in the city if it's lucky. The hybrid version gets more than 20 - a 33 percent increase. Hybrids cost more, but you save on gas. And, as with all new technology, costs will fall as production rises. With expertise in electric drive trains, White Marsh could get more business later if plug-in cars happen to take off.

Truck buyers might take time to embrace technology associated with zinfandel-sipping Prius drivers. But they should come to love the powerful motors that will represent the next phase of hybrid-vehicle art. White Marsh will not make golf carts.

The plant, backed by tens of millions in stimulus money from the Obama administration, will need 200 more employees to make the motors. The expansion also will create hundreds of jobs among suppliers, including, with luck and diligence, local metal-forming shops. The resulting vehicles will reduce carbon emissions and pollution as well as the dollars we send to places like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Shame it took Washington so long to make this happen. Fifteen miles a gallon is a miserable performance from any vehicle in 2010 except an aircraft carrier.

Before 2007, the last time Congress significantly tightened mileage standards was 1990. Now it needs to pass another sensible law, an energy and climate bill to keep promoting innovation and energy independence.

Helping the planet and helping the economy are not mutually exclusive. The evidence will be found in White Marsh.

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