Electric Road Trip

From Chattanooga to Atlanta, unpacking misconceptions

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Yesterday marked our second tour of an auto manufacturing plant in as many days.

Well, sort of.

We were really hoping to visit Volkswagen's manufacturing plant here in Chattanooga, a vibrant city nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. But VW was gearing up to release its new T-Cross and was not allowing any visitors inside the plant. Instead, the company offered us a tour of the VW Academy, where high school and college students get trained to assemble cars and trucks.

Inside the academy, we still didn't get to speak with any trainees, who were hard at work. But we did meet with Ilker Subasi, the head of the training program. He explained that assembling an EV is similar to assembling a traditional gasoline-powered car. The only major difference is that EVs are powered by a lithium-ion battery rather than an internal combustion engine.

That's the same message we heard Monday, when we toured Nissan's manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tenn. Executives at the Nissan plant said their employees must take special safety precautions before working with the batteries, which run the risk of short-circuiting and potentially exposing them to high voltage.

Subasi agreed on the importance of safety.

"It's important for us to make sure they understand the risk," he said. "It's not as easy as plugging in and saying, 'Hey, everything is good to go.'"

After leaving the VW Academy, we hopped in our Kia Niro EV and drove to a "lunch and learn" session at Green Spaces, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit. There, over tacos and nachos, we heard from EV advocates from across the state of Tennessee.

Daniel Siksay, a project manager at the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, talked about opportunities to cut gasoline consumption. His comments were especially relevant this week, as Americans wait for gasoline prices to go up after a drone strike set ablaze Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq refinery, the largest refinery in the world.

Siksay pushed back on what he considers some common misconceptions about EVs. One, he said, is that they could actually produce more greenhouse gas emissions than gas-powered cars. This talking point is often repeated by people allied with the fossil fuel industry.

"You're going to hear people who are kind of skeptical of electric cars saying, 'While they don't have tailpipe emissions, you're still pulling from the grid,'" Siksay said. "If the grid is a little dirty, then you're going to be producing way more emissions than a regular internal combustion engine vehicle on the road."

In fact, he said, carbon-free nuclear power accounts for 44% of the energy mix in Tennessee. That means EV drivers in the state produce far less lifecycle emissions than their gas-guzzling counterparts. (In a 2015 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists reached a similar conclusion about the cleaner lifecycle emissions of EVs.)

After Green Spaces, we hit the road for a two-hour drive to Atlanta. During the drive, the song "Road to Nowhere" by the Talking Heads came on, and we couldn't help but laugh. This trip, of course, is not a road to nowhere. It's a road toward a greater understanding of how EVs are changing America, one city and state at a time.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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