Valley, educators have big future in EV

It is amazing to think that nine months after the last Chevy Cruze rolled off the line at Lordstown, on Christmas Day the Washington Post runs a story exploring the possibility of the Mahoning Valley becoming a hub for electric vehicle technology. I will not go as far as calling this rebirth an Immaculate Conception of the new auto industry in the Valley, but given the reaction by the auto and technology industry media to the news that LG and GM are going to build a $2.3 billion EV battery plant near the old GM assembly line, maybe we can say it’s more an Immaculate Reception (no disrespect, Franco Harris).

Bad holiday jokes aside, it is great that the Valley is being regarded as a potential “Hub” for electric vehicles. But the article also pointed out that the competition is fierce for that hub status. Even in the U.S., Detroit is competing with California who is competing with Boston as being the main location of where the winning next generation technologies for electric and autonomous vehicles will hail from. So for the Mahoning Valley to really learn from its more recent past, in order to lock in a hub status, it takes more than just creating manufacturing jobs. It will take the push to generate essential and cutting intellectual property within northeast Ohio. This will not be easy, but it will be essential.

Several years ago the Valley was noted for having one of the highest concentration of STEM-related jobs, but at the associate degree level and below. Conversely, at the bachelors and higher level, the Valley had one of the lowest concentration in all the U.S. Being an optimist, I looked at the fact that we had such skilled workers as an excellent starting point. More on this in a bit.

For now, the main assets to get to being a real research hub for EVs are our universities in northeast Ohio. YSU, while having an excellent STEM college, has not focused on automotive technologies. Instead, its major push has been in additive manufacturing in wake of President Obama’s forming a public-private research hub for the technology in downtown Youngstown. And that could potentially be great news for the Valley’s quest to grow in EV prominence.

The biggest hurdle for mass adoption for EVs are the range of the car. With the exception of the highly expensive Teslas, most EVs that are within the average consumers price range still has roughly 1/2 to 2/3 the range of a conventional gasoline car. While that is a significant improvement over the last five years, there needs to be a greater push to get to the benchmark 400 miles range per charge. 3D printing could be a part of the solution.

Our neighbors at Carnegie Mellon University are working on such a solution. A team from there worked with at Missouri S&T and have developed a revolutionary new method of 3D printing battery electrodes that creates a 3D “microlattice” structure that has tremendous benefit for the strength of the battery and could ultimately help extend range. A Hong Kong / Shanghai consortium has begun to 3D print entire electric cars for a retail price under $10,000. That is ambitious, but printing at minimum lower volume parts can help a firm like Lordstown Motors to create interesting new vehicles in batches. This is where that intersection of STEM jobs by workers on the floor and researchers in the lab could intersect, and create opportunities.

YSU and its partners, including the Youngstown Business Incubator, are already tasking themselves with so many projects that are worthwhile and do not involve electric vehicles. Therefore jumping into EV R&D will need greater partnerships and a greater push for more resources. The University of Akron has for years been working on the motors and components in the EV industry. They can be an excellent partner for the Valley and YSU. A joint venture that works to further the private sector companies that are willing to set up shop in the Valley for EV development would be a win-win for all parties.

When Black Monday happened in 1977, I can bet you dollars and doughnuts that nine months later the Washington Post or any national paper did not carry any articles talking about how the Mahoning Valley is reinventing itself. That is the hallmark of a resilient people, and that is why firms like GM and LG are attracted to the area. Now with a push from the Valley’s leadership, Valley Auto 2.0 can charge rapidly.

I just want to end with a note of gratitude to the Tribune Chronicle for taking over the legacy of The (Youngstown) Vindicator. I’ve had the pleasure of writing for both newspapers individually, and it’s great that both are in good hands.

Eric Planey is a Valley native and director of a global financial institution in New York City. He is also a member of the Robinson-Shuba Commemorative Statue Committee (Robin sonShuba.org). The views expressed in this piece are his own.



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