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CAR Conference Brings Auto Execs to Traverse City

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President Biden says there’s no turning back on the future of the automotive industry. Thursday he signed an Executive Order calling for a new national target: 50% of all vehicles sold should be electric by the year 2030.

The goal is to move to more efficient vehicles with zero emissions, by moving out of gas-powered cars and into electric ones. Executives with the Big Three automakers met with the President at the White House Thursday.

Meanwhile, President Biden‘s executive order is one of the many items on the agenda at an annual automotive conference in Traverse City. The Center for Automotive Research, or “CAR”, cancelled last year’s meeting for industry leaders due to the pandemic. But this year’s work sessions are firing on all cylinders.

The latest in self-driving vehicles… vehicle safety…and electric vehicles are all up for discussion at this year’s CAR conference. And attendance is amped up. Carla Bailo is the President and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research. “We expected around 350 people, we ended up with over 500, with 200 people livestreaming in.”

Tim Grewe is the Director of Global Battery Cell and Electrification Strategy for General Motors. “Not only are you getting the collaboration of the industry but you’re also getting the collaboration of the virtual people. So you can tie it together. It’s a much larger event than anyone expected.” Governor Whitmer is also in attendance – serving as the Keynote Speaker on Thursday.

And this year’s event seems to have taken on a new spirit of cooperation. Bailo says, “There doesn’t seem to be any hierarchy anymore. Students, everybody. They’re talking about the issues. Everybody’s welcome at the table. Everybody’s listening. It’s sort of like we’ve had the great equalizer over the pandemic.”

With the President’s goal on electric vehicle production announced during the conference, organizers took a sharp left turn and added it to the agenda. “It’s an aggressive target considering today’s sales are about 8% in totality of electrified of some kind. Not even pure battery-electric. So it’s a big goal,” Bailo says. While she’s including hybrids in that figure, pure battery-electric vehicles account for just 2% of sales.

Grewe says one of the challenges to achieving the goal will be, “how do you convince customers that they want to have an electric vehicle? And that they’ll have a better lifestyle with an electric vehicle.” The goal is to get more hybrid vehicles and more completely electric vehicles on the road by 2030. Automakers say it’s a daunting process but they’re up to the challenge. “I think the goals are a great thing to have. And you can have a lot of confidence in American innovation.”

Bailo adds, “Everybody’s 100% behind it. As you’ll see a lot of the automakers are meeting with President Biden.” But it’s a technological challenge too. Lithium for batteries made today comes from Australia and China – and not the US. That adds to worries that the new goals may increase our reliance on foreign countries, Bailo says. “Of course there’s fear, and I think that’s part of why we need to be looking at what can we do, and what should the timing be for that and how can we fund that?”

But automakers feel confident that innovation will win the race. Grewe says, “We have a factory that makes batteries in Holland, Michigan, (even though) a lot of that supply doesn’t come from Michigan.”

Grewe also says one roadblock with the public has been mileage limitations on a full charge of an electric vehicle. While it’s been in the range of 250 miles per full charge, that’s already changing. “Now the new cars are coming out with a 300-400 mile ranges. Which really help alleviate that expectation (of having to stop frequently to recharge).”

CAR’s CEO also addressed the chip shortage that stalled production. Bailo says it is real, but the situation is improving. “Cars are getting smarter but part of the reason the chip shortage is here, is that everything is getting smarter. Your appliances, the handhelds that you use. It’s just going to take time to get out of this.”

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