Auto workers worry that less labor is needed to produce electric cars. Maybe not, some researchers say


A traditional car engine is a complex marvel of engineering, with pistons moving up and down, springs compressing and decompressing, rotating shafts, opening and closing valves, and rotating gears meshing together. That’s not to mention the transmission connecting the engine to the wheels, it’s a complex machine in its own right. An electric motor, on the other hand, is really just a few magnets wrapped in wires and only needs a single-speed transmission. This simplicity worries the United Auto Workers union.

An oft-repeated estimate is that with fewer parts under the hood, electric cars require 30% to 40% less labor than gasoline cars. It’s not that simple, though some researchers argue that the labor savings of electric vehicles are greatly overstated.

People assume these estimates are true, said researcher Turner Cotterman, because they are based largely on the number of moving parts in an electric vehicle. Because there are fewer parts in electric cars than in gas-powered ones, people think there are fewer to make, said Kotterman, who worked on the Carnegie Mellon University report on the issue and is now a McKinsey fellow and Company.

“There was an assumption that there was a linear relationship between the number of parts and the labor to make them,” Cotterman said.

But manufacturing the drivetrain of electric vehicles — the batteries, electric motors and power management systems — requires more labor, not less, than that involved in making engines and transmissions, said Erika Fuchs, a labor researcher. at Carnegie Mellon. She worked on the research paper with Cotterman that analyzed the labor requirements of electric versus gasoline powertrains.

Researchers from the Boston Consulting Group came to a similar conclusion. They found that producing an all-electric vehicle—apart from just the drivetrain—required only slightly less labor overall than producing a gasoline-powered car.

“When you look at the likes of the vehicle today — an electric vehicle vs [internal combustion] — there’s on the order of a percent or a few percent difference in the man-hours required to produce that vehicle,” said Nathan Nees, global subject leader for electric vehicles at Boston Consulting.

These were among several research reports that found little overall difference in man-hour requirements for manufacturing EVs compared to gas-powered cars. GM’s executive vice president of manufacturing, Gerald Johnson, made a similar claim in a GM video posted on the company’s website about labor negotiations.

“We did our own analysis at General Motors, and there are other studies that confirm that the employee base needed in the future to produce EVs is very similar to what is needed for comparable [internal combustion] vehicle today,” he said.

In electric cars, there is one big part that requires a lot of work, the battery. The battery cells that go into a battery pack require more than half of the labor hours involved in manufacturing an electric vehicle’s powertrain, Fuchs said.

Boston Consulting estimates that producing battery cells takes about 8% of the total labor to produce an entire car. That’s slightly higher than the percentage of labor required to produce a gasoline engine, he said.

The jobs needed to build EV batteries are one reason the Inflation Reduction Act, which sets rules on federal tax incentives for electric vehicles, offers consumers more credits if they buy an EV with batteries made in the United States . And a number of automakers, both US-based and European and Asian manufacturers, including Toyota, BMW and Hyundai, have announced US battery manufacturing projects.

The battery manufacturing process is highly automated, as is much of modern manufacturing, but that still leaves a lot of work for people, Niese said.

“Yes, a lot of the equipment is automated in a few of the steps, but in terms of managing that automated equipment, quality checks, maintenance, product engineering on site, supply chain, those aspects are still there,” he said. “You have to load the front end with all your raw materials, then it goes through a process.”

Ford said the battery plant in Marshall, Michigan, where the automaker recently halted construction, will hire 2,500 people. Ford also expects to train 5,000 people to work at a battery manufacturing joint venture currently under construction in Kentucky. GM employs about 1,300 workers at its Ultium Cells joint venture plant in Ohio, where workers voted to join the UAW.

On Friday, UAW President Sean Fein announced that, although contract negotiations are still ongoing, GM has agreed to put its battery-cell plants under whatever broader UAW contract it eventually ends up with. agreed upon.

“They have agreed to put the future of this industry under our national agreement,” Fein said in an online address.

GM did not comment on that aspect of the negotiations.

When it comes to the car itself, there are many parts of an EV that people tend to overlook. There are high-voltage wiring systems, built-in chargers that convert alternating current to direct current to charge the batteries. In many electric vehicles, complex cooling systems are required to maintain battery temperature. Many EVs also have a front trunk or trunk that is used as a functional space that requires additional construction.

Also, because electric cars have heavy batteries, the rest of the vehicle must be particularly light. That means workers have to contend with materials like aluminum and composites. They can be more difficult to work with than the steel the industry has traditionally used, the Boston Consulting report notes. And these features also require more careful quality management.

In fact, leaving aside the labor of building the powertrain, Boston Consulting estimates that the final assembly stage of the structure—the part where the components come together to make a final vehicle—actually requires slightly more work for an electric vehicle than for a gasoline car. (The overall slight reduction in total labor found by Boston Consulting is down to fewer parts, many of which are manufactured by supplier companies.)

However, Niese cautions that electric vehicle production is still relatively new, so automakers will find ways to be more efficient and reduce work. They have had over 100 years to squeeze as much work out of gas powered vehicles as possible.

It’s still just the beginning with electric cars.

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