Electric Road Trip

Week 3 of the Electric Road Trip: Motor City leg

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — I stare at the map of our route into the industrial Midwest, and the bloody histories of worker revolts and public mutiny spring to mind.

The streetcar workers' strike that plunged Indianapolis into chaos in 1913. The "Battle of Toledo" that pitted 10,000 strikers against the Ohio National Guard. The race riots that consumed Detroit in 1967 and 1968.

What does this have to do with electric cars?

One of the goals of our 6,000-mile reporting trip and the time we'll spend in Ohio and Michigan is to explore what happens when battery-powered cars start to uproot a car economy that over a century has created millions of jobs, from the assembly line to the parts factory. The changes that EVs wreak on job security, income and culture could shape how Americans feel about electric cars. And how do labor unions, the auto supply industry and their home cities respond to change?

Today, workers are picketing outside General Motors factories across the Midwest and South. A week ago, union representatives for nearly 50,000 autoworkers cut a line in the sand that triggered the biggest walkout since 2007. It didn't take long for GM's planned investments in electric car production to find center stage. The auto giant made an eleventh hour offer to reopen its idled Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant for EV battery production.

But there was a catch. According to Bloomberg News, the workers hired to build batteries for GM's new lines of electric cars would make significantly less money than assembly line workers. That proposal, according to reports, was a last straw that contributed to the strike.

It's a stretch to say the GM strike is evidence the Midwest is hurtling toward a bloody transition to electric cars. But we'll be on the ground, and we'll be asking hard questions about the connection.

On Saturday, after reporters Kristi Swartz and Maxine Joselow handed off our Kia Niro EV after a romp through the South, I went to meet some electric car enthusiasts in Knoxville. I wanted to know what they made of the labor strife. I met Terrence Lyons, a 38-year-old manager at an auto transmission parts supplier. He told me his Tesla Model S has driven a conversation about retraining.

"Every day at lunch someone wants to take a ride in my car, and it sparks a conversation," he said. "They want to know how will this affect my job, how will this affect us. We talk about five years down the road, 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road."

Today I kick off the third leg of the Electric Road Trip with a visit to the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. ORNL, as everyone here calls it, is a government-led epicenter of research into battery life and EV charging infrastructure.

Everything about the lab's Tennessee River site seems connected to the nation's boldest investments in energy. The Tennessee Valley Authority still supplies electricity to the region. The massive ORNL campus and the adjacent Y-12 nuclear weapons facility tie back to the Manhattan Project.

From here, I head to Kentucky, grazing the edge of coal country and to a place called Nazareth. The enclave near Louisville is home to the most technologically advanced group of Catholic nuns in the country. Our St. Louis-based Midwest correspondent Jeff Tomich joins me in Indianapolis. From there it's on to Columbus, Ohio, and then Detroit, the heart of autos — and of labor discontent.

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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