Electric vehicles pose 'real risk' for autoworkers, with fewer parts — and jobs — required

The shift to electric vehicles is "a potential revolution,” said one automotive analyst, noting that it will impact everything from gas stations to car dealerships to city budgets.
Image: Striking United Auto Workers (UAW) walk the picket line in Hamtramck
Striking United Auto Workers (UAW) walk the picket line in Hamtramck, Michigan on Sept. 25, 2019.Rebecca Cook / Reuters

The industry-wide shift to electric vehicles signals a monumental change in the way cars are manufactured, with fewer parts required, and fewer workers needed for assembly. The matter is one of the issues at the heart of the ongoing strike between the United Automobile Workers labor union and GM, which just entered its third week.

Electric vehicles pose “the real risk” to traditional autoworkers, Jennifer Kelly, the research director for the UAW, said earlier this year during a collective bargaining conference in Detroit.

Hybrid cars combine electric drive hardware with a conventional, internal combustion engine, and require more labor — about 9.2 man hours compared with 6.2 hours for a typical gas vehicle. But an all-electric vehicle cuts that down to 3.7 hours, Mark Wakefield, head of the automotive practice at consultancy AlixPartners, told NBC News.

While a battery pack is quite complex, ‘It is a largely automated process,” further reducing manpower needs, said automotive analyst John McElroy.

Complicating matters, while most automakers produce their own internal combustion engines, they largely farm out batteries and battery packs to a small handful of global suppliers, such as Japan’s Panasonic and South Korea’s LG Chem. Many of those facilities are based overseas.

There’s pressure to bring production to the U.S., but even that could hit workers. GM would like to build a battery plant in Ohio, but to make it competitive, GM has told the UAW this would require hourly employees to take pay cuts.

Automakers like GM won't be the only ones to feel the impact of the shift to EVs. Conventional powertrain suppliers — and their workers — are particularly at risk if they can't convert operations to supply battery-car components.

The job impact of the shift to EVs will be felt far beyond the confines of the factory — from car dealer service departments to fueling stations.

“What we’re looking at is a potential revolution,” said David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, MI. And, he added, “It’s going to impact everything. It’s a systemic problem.”

A typical dealer will lose about $1,300 in maintenance and repairs for the typical EV over a five-year ownership cycle compared to what an owner would spend on a comparable gas model, according to AlixPartners.

“Electric cars require far less service,” said McElroy, noting that “You’ll no longer need oil changes or oil filter changes, no fan belts or tune-ups.” Even brakes, he added, will last longer because EVs use a system called regenerative braking where energy is recaptured and returned to a vehicle’s battery, reducing wear on brake pads and other parts.

Today’s gas-powered vehicles already require less maintenance than in the past. Where oil changes once were required every 3,000 miles or so, a typical car now can go 7,500, even as much as 15,000 miles without a change. That’s one reason so many service stations have fired their mechanics.

But electric vehicles raise the question of how many of those stations will be needed, even if they were to swap out their gas pumps for electric chargers. Likely a lot fewer, according to Pasquale Romano, the CEO of Chargepoint, one of the country’s largest operators of public charging stations.

Currently, EV owners do more than 80 percent of their charging at home or work, according to industry data. As more electric cars roll out and motorists start using them for longer trips, Romano said, there’ll be a need for a public infrastructure. Even so, “You won’t need nearly as many (public) charging stations as you have gas stations today,” he said, meaning still fewer jobs.

How fast the EV revolution will take place — and how quickly its impact on jobs will be felt — is a matter of intense debate, and it “depends on how quickly electric vehicles catch on,” said McElroy.

For the moment, all forms of battery-based vehicles account for barely 5 percent of the U.S. new vehicle market. But the rate of consumer adoption is expected to increase rapidly over the coming decade as more new models come to market, prices drop and the public charging infrastructure expands.