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Electric Slide

Celebrated White Marsh plant brings few jobs, zero cars to Maryland

Photo: Edward Ericson Jr., License: N/A, Created: 2013:04:16 12:57:47

Edward Ericson Jr.

The GM Spark, made in White Marsh, will initially only be sold in California and Oregon.


The stage has 100 or so folding chairs arrayed before it, a platform behind them for the TV cameras. Auto-tuned pop blares from the speakers, drowning out most of the conversation among county council members, union people, politicians, and the occasional factory worker. The robots, with red lights flashing above their cages, are all but silent.

“Forward, not back,” Governor Martin O’Malley—wearing the requisite blue suit and flag pin—says to someone as he grins and grips his way through the crowd.

It is April 16, the day the GM Spark electric vehicle’s motor and transaxle are to be revealed to the world. The 150-pound lump of aluminum, copper, and rare earth magnets is displayed on a pedestal in front of the stage next to an actual Spark electric vehicle (EV), which looks like a Toyota Yaris or a scaled-up Dustbuster.

The 110,000-square foot plant cost $230 million to build. The Federal Department of Energy contributed $105 million of that. The state of Maryland chipped in another $2 to 3 million. Baltimore County anted up $6.2 million—to be paid if employment targets are met.

Chances are excellent they won’t be: There are about 20 employees, maybe 25 in the e-motor plant. There are 27 robots.

Appointed like this, running one shift per day, the plant can churn out 40,000 electric motors per year, according to Joe Connelly, the process engineer who set the place up and will later lead a tour. “As many as you want, we’ll build ’em,” he says.

That last quote is the party line. The 40,000 figure is, apparently, a slip. “That’s a question about volume, and we don’t discuss volume,” says Mary Ann Brown, a GM spokesperson.

The likelihood that GM will require 40,000 of these motors appears very slim—for this car anyway. So the cost of these 25 jobs is approximately $9 million apiece, split evenly between the government and General Motors, which, at the time the deal was struck, was owned by the government.

“Jobs are the top priority of this administration,” O’Malley says from the stage.

The police-chauffered governor says he is looking forward to the opportunity to “take a spin” in the car: “That’s why I came out here, so I can drive.”

And this, too, will be a rare opportunity not just for the governor of Maryland but for everyone on the East Coast and the Midwest and the mountain states for the foreseeable future. When introduced in June, the Spark is going to be sold only in California and Oregon. “We haven’t said other locations within the U.S.,” says Brown. Buyers in Canada, Europe, Mexico, and South Korea—the country where the car is assembled—will get it after that, she adds.

The Spark’s is the first electric-car motor to be produced in the U.S. It boasts 130 horsepower, which is pretty good, and 400 foot-pounds of torque, which is huge. That amount of torque is about what a Corvette makes. No one can say how this little motor produces so much more power than similar motors. But the torque is what might give the Spark an edge in the electric-car market—if enough people get a chance to try it.

No one complains about the small number of jobs so far.

“Unfortunately, days like this don’t come as often as we’d like,” says Fred Swanner, president of UAW Local 239, from the stage. “So we are excited.”

There are 250 employed at the site—here at the e-motor plant and next door, where they make truck transmissions. To get the county’s $6 million bump, GM will have to increase the headcount to 374 people, about the estimate it made when it cut the deal three years ago.

But to get those hires, it’s going to need either a huge increase in demand for trucks, an unprecedented demand for electric cars—or both. And the Spark EV, upon which the environmental halo has been hung, is unlikely to take off soon.

Begin with the price. GM has announced that the car will sell for “under $25,000” after the federal subsidy for electric cars is factored in. That equates to a sticker price in the $32,000 range. Nissan, meanwhile, has just cut the price of its all-electric Leaf to less than $29,000.

But the real problem, say EV experts, is that GM will not make the car available to most potential buyers.

On the stage, the governor says, “all of this comes down to one word, and that word is innovation.”

Actually, that word is “subsidy.” Or maybe: “regulation.”

But for regulations set by the California Air Resources Board, it is unlikely the Spark EV would be built at all.

“It’s very promising. It’s fun to drive, and all that,” says Chelsea Sexton, an expert in electric vehicles and a former GM electric-vehicle marketer. “But it is also still in our minds a compliance car.”

That means the Spark—like the Honda Fit EV, Ford Focus Electric, Toyota RAV4 EV, and Fiat 500 Elettrica—are most likely being built only to comply with California’s regulations, which force the five largest car manufacturers to produce a small number of “zero-emission” vehicles for the California market. If they don’t, they will not be allowed to sell any vehicles in the state.

The California market—the nation’s biggest—is why GM spent $121 million to build electric motors in White Marsh. The governor’s praise, the Department of Energy’s $105 million, the green halo—all these are just bonuses, according to this theory.

Sexton, now an L.A.-based marketing consultant specializing in electric vehicles, knows intimately about big corporate decision-making. She lost her job in 2001, when GM called back all of its leased EV-1s and crushed them, a now-infamous decision immortalized in the 2006 movie Who Killed the Electric Car?

“I hope there is enough volume so that it becomes a high-volume vehicle,” she says of the Spark. “But given the history of EVs, and particularly of GM and EVs, it’s too early to say that this is going to be built in tens or hundreds of thousands.”

High volume is the key to bringing the price down and the infrastructure of charging stations up. Nissan, for example, sold about 20,000 battery-powered Leafs last year and has been selling about 1,500 to 2,000 per month since it dropped the price to $28,800, Sexton says.

In White Marsh, people line up to drive the two blue Sparks around the back of the plant. Some squeal the tires as they zip around corners, but punching the throttle won’t melt the smallish rubber the way it would if the power were all allowed to get there. There is a traction control system that prevents it.

Still, the car gets up and goes. There is no “torque steer”—the tendency to be able to turn the wheel with a punch of the throttle. It’s smooth, quiet, comfortable, and surprisingly roomy. GM isn’t saying how far it could go on a charge, but 75-80 miles seems to be consensus. There will be a fast-charging option too.

All of which is moot for City Paper readers.

Marcus, a Southern transplant who worked body-panel stamping before relocating to White Marsh to build motors as a production leader, rides with a reporter behind the wheel before taking his own turn.

He hops in and takes off: maybe his first and only chance to drive what he builds.

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