General Motors officially launched its new electric motor in White Marsh Tuesday, a milestone in U.S. manufacturing — and a key part of the company's bet that the electric-vehicle market is poised to grow.
With production under way at the Baltimore County "eMotor" plant, GM says, the company is the first automaker to manufacture electric-drive motors domestically. The operation is small for now: About 20 employees make motors for the plug-in electric Chevrolet Spark EV, side by side with 27 robots.
Local leaders hope for growth — something that depends on consumers. Whether they will buy all-electric vehicles in significant numbers is the question facing White Marsh, GM and the entire auto industry, said Brett Smith, co-director of manufacturing, engineering and technology at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"We know we can sell this car to a small, small percentage of the population who is absolutely passionate about the environment or the technology," he said. "The challenge … is can we create a technology, a vehicle, that the average buyer can look at and say, 'That is a cost-competitive vehicle'?"
GM said the Spark EV will hit the market at under $25,000 — but only after accounting for a $7,500 federal income tax credit. (A gas-powered version of the Spark sells for less than $13,000.)
The subcompact car will go on sale this summer in California and Oregon. GM plans to sell it in Canada, Europe and South Korea later in the year but has no timeline yet for other markets, including the rest of the United States.
The "electric drive" market — including hybrids — accounts for about 3.8 percent of U.S. auto sales, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. That's up from 2.2 percent in 2011.
But for now, the lion's share of those purchases are hybrids that can run on gas, rather than pure electric vehicles such as the Spark EV. Automakers sold about 9,200 all-electric vehicles in the first three months of this year, compared with nearly 130,000 hybrids and plug-in hybrids.
GM won't disclose the number of motors it can produce in its new 110,000-square-foot facility. But the plant's manager, William Tiger, said there's room to grow.
"Put it this way — buy as many as you want," he said. "We'll build them."
Government officials believe in the potential for growth. GM built its White Marsh eMotor facility with $105 million from the U.S. Department of Energy in addition to its own $121 million investment. The state has offered up to $3 million in economic-development grants, though Maryland officials believe GM will ultimately qualify for $2 million.
That's based on hiring at the entire facility, not just at the electric-motor plant. GM's transmission plant next door employs most of the 250 people on site, an increase of 65 jobs since the state struck its original incentive deal with GM three years ago. The company reversed layoffs and hired new people as the market for its A1000 transmission improved.
If GM can get employment up to 374 jobs in total, it will qualify for $6 million in grants from Baltimore County.
GM apparently expected to have more people on the electric-motor side by now. As recently as last year, the company said it would hire about 189 workers for that operation, but now the company isn't offering forecasts for job growth there.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who toured the site Tuesday, offered no complaints about the size of employment so far.
"I'm just grateful for GM choosing Baltimore County to invest in the product, and the jobs they offer are good-paying jobs with great benefits," he said. "This second building is a substantial investment on their part, both in terms of the structure as well as the equipment, but it also hopefully will provide a glimpse of further opportunities that they could develop on the campus."
Anirban Basu, head of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm, said government investments in private enterprises don't always pan out. But he thinks it's the right move for developing and expanding new technologies, including those involved with electric vehicles.
"I think the long term is very much working toward electric vehicles gaining market share," Basu said. He pointed out that oil is costly but natural gas for electricity is cheap and plentiful. "For the region to gain a foothold in that emerging segment is very important."
GM leaders say they're serious about the market. That's why they chose to build the Spark EV motor themselves, rather than rely on a supplier — they want an intimate understanding of what works.
"Big area, big opportunity," said Larry T. Nitz, executive director of electrification for GM. "We are committed to electrification."
Kamenetz said he's optimistic about the Spark EV's potential after test-driving one of the sky-blue models parked outside the building Tuesday. He thinks GM, which plans to sell in only two states at first, is underestimating its likely domestic appeal.
"I have to tell you, I got into it thinking that it would be just be one of these typical subcompacts, but I got out of it recognizing that this is truly a car of the future," Kamenetz said.
The Spark EV starts with the push of a button, runs quietly and can go from zero to 60 mph in under eight seconds.
Tiger waited for a break in the test drives Tuesday, and then said, "Can I try it?" He said he hadn't yet, even though it's his plant that makes the motors. Given the opportunity, he hit the accelerator and zipped off.
Though Tuesday was the official launch, workers began making the motors months ago — first in production trials, then switching to salable versions in February.
Tuesday morning, machines in the robot-heavy plant kept up a steady din as copper wire, laminated steel and other parts came together into 75-pound motors. Stephanie Spivey, a rotor assembly technician from Ellicott City, gave visitors a demonstration of the work she began doing only recently.
"The new technology is very interesting," said Spivey, who joined GM three months ago.
Once built, the motors go to the transmission plant to be assembled into drive units, then on to South Korea, where the cars are assembled.
Tiger, who manages the entire 250-employee operation in White Marsh, said GM generally builds cars in the markets where they'll be sold. There's clear demand for subcompact cars in Asia, he said.
"We're going to find out what the acceptance is … in the States," he said.
Fred Swanner, president of UAW Local 239, which represents GM workers in White Marsh, said the Spark EV motor could go into other vehicles, including hybrids. He'd like to see the "exciting" new technology succeed. And spawn more jobs.
"Right now, it's a small production," he said. "We're hoping that will expand."