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Youngstown, Ohio, hopes to plug into electric car manufacturing

GM shutters plant while promising jobs
GM shutters plant while promising jobs 07:22

The day Youngstown's steel mills began shuttering 40 years ago still remains fresh in the minds of many of those who live in the blue-collar corner of Ohio. Community leaders don't want the recent closing of General Motors' massive Lordstown assembly plant to leave that same lingering gloom.

The region is embarking on an ambitious plan to become a research and production hub for electric vehicles and carve out a new economy for itself by mixing its industrial past with emerging technology.

GM announced in December it will form a joint venture and hire more than 1,100 people at a new plant that it says will be among the largest electric vehicle battery cell factories in the world. And the Lordstown assembly plant that GM shut down in March has been sold to a newly formed company that hopes to make electric trucks by late 2020.

But the Youngstown region, which for decades has been a symbol of the American Midwest's declining industrial might, faces plenty of competition from places like Detroit, Silicon Valley and China — all of which also are positioning to be centers for electric and autonomous vehicles.

While the electric transformation within the auto industry is just beginning to take shape, it's clear that fewer workers and factories will be needed to make cars that require fewer parts. Where those next clusters of electric vehicle manufacturing will sprout is yet to be determined.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat who represents the Youngstown area, thinks electric vehicles are the best chance his hometown has to restore what has been lost.

China's drive to dominate the electric car in... 13:41

"For a long time in our community, we were chasing smokestacks, chasing things that were on the decline," Ryan said. "We're starting to move in a good direction."

The Youngstown area already has an electric battery testing lab and business incubators focused on energy and manufacturing through 3-D printing, economic development leaders said. Officials at Youngstown State University have an advanced manufacturing technology center and want to train students to work in the electric vehicle industry.

"We want to take charge of our future," said Mike Hripko, the university's associate vice president for economic development and government relations. "An opportunity like this really plays to our regional strengths." 

It will take more than a battery cell plant for the Youngstown region to become a hub for electric vehicles, said Brett Smith, director of research at the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank in Michigan. Auto-oriented technology and research will be centered largely in South Korea, China, Detroit and California, he predicted. 

A big question is whether a place like Ohio that has had a big role in producing traditional engines and transmissions can stake a claim to a new way of making vehicles.

Both GM and Ford Motor Co. announced this year they are investing heavily in Detroit-area factories, where they plan to build electric and autonomous vehicles. Volkswagen, meanwhile, will make Tennessee its North American base for electric vehicle production.

Where the manufacturing is centered will be determined by a number of factors, Smith said, including logistics, labor contracts, political influences, workforce training and how quickly car buyers embrace electric vehicles. Fully electric vehicles currently make up only 1.5% of U.S. new vehicle sales, and LMC Automotive forecasts the share will rise to only 7.5% by the end of the next decade.

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