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Shifting Gears: The New Direction of the Auto Industry

David Murray

Posted December 7, 2013 in Green Enterprise, Moving Beyond Oil

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The American auto industry is often compared to a battleship: large, powerful, but tough to turn. Yet by taking steps to move beyond oil, the industry is in a period of rapid transformation. And this means great things for Millennials.

Last month, I headed out to San Jose to attend the Net Impact Conference. Net Impact is an international non-profit which aims to place students and young professionals in careers that have a positive influence on the environment and community. By instilling a sense of social consciousness in young professionals, Net Impact hopes to shape the next generation of CEOs, directors, and entrepreneurs.

A conference full of creatives and social activists isn’t the first place you’d expect to find several Fortune 500 companies recruiting candidates. But there were 3M, Ford, Kohl’s, and GM, to name a few, as conference sponsors. Each sought to engage participants by touting their commitments to sustainability and innovation. I was especially struck by the presence of automobile companies. Historically, when it comes to recruiting, the “Big Three” are known for sticking to a traditional playbook. Here they were in Silicon Valley looking to engage idealistic Millennials. I decided to find out why.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: By setting a long term goal to make affordable electric models and a fuel efficient fleet, the industry is recruiting a new generation of hires.

During the conference, I sat down with John Viera, Global Director of Sustainability at Ford. Viera noted that not long ago, Ford’s R&D workforce consisted mainly of mechanical engineers. But the company’s new focus on electrified products- including hybrids and electric vehicles- has created a new class of hires. Obama at Edison Electric 2.jpgRecruiting top-notch software developers, chemists, electrical engineers, and candidates with experience in big data analysis and software connectivity is key, Viera mentioned, noting this type of R&D is “the future of what this company is going to be about.”  No generation before us had the opportunity to gain this kind of technical knowledge, thus Millennials are pivotal to shaping the industry by seizing these jobs

This nascent electric vehicle industry is offering its own set of opportunities to young professionals. At a panel at Net Impact, GM’s Britta Gross explained that the need to develop infrastructure to support electric vehicles will be a key sector for graduates with experienced in urban planning, marketing and sales. Furthermore, as consumers are largely unfamiliar with electric vehicles let alone the financial incentives available to buyers, car companies are tapping young talent familiar with social media and advertising to engage potential customers. Jobs in the electric vehicle industry aren’t just based in Midwest manufacturing hubs; across the country Millennials have the opportunity to help advance the EV economy.

Finally, new fuel efficiency standards, authorized in 2012, have also helped bring many additional, younger workers into the industry. As my colleague Luke Tonachel explains, the standards provided regulatory certainty necessary for car companies to take on new hires. Young engineers have a great career opportunity to take advantage of the industry’s long term commitment to designing and developing fuel efficient technology. In fact, fuel efficiency investments have already created thousands of new jobs across the country.

Millennials will not only shape the industry from the inside, but can leverage our power as consumers to create a cleaner fleet for generations to come.

By 2020, we will represent 40% of all car sales. But today Millennials are driving less than previous generations. Car companies face the challenge of appealing to a new consumer base, and fortunately, our preferences are leading the industry in a sustainable direction.

Affordability is a top concern for a generation saddled by student debt and weak economy. The good news is, thanks to new automobile efficiency standards, your new car can save you thousands at the pump. It’s not only the compacts and mid-sizes I’m talking about.

  2013 Ford Explorer.JPGPick-up trucks and minivans are becoming increasingly energy efficient.    For example, by downsizing the engine and switching to unibody architecture, Ford and Dodge saved their  Explorer and Durango customers over $70 each month of gasoline costs.  89% of Millennials consider gas mileage when purchasing a vehicle; it’s critical we continue looking at the long term costs of driving a  vehicle before buying it. If we don’t continue making fuel efficiency a priority, we’re more open to high gas prices, expensive road trips, and frequent pit stops.                                                                

 But what about those of us ready to ditch the 20th century combustion engine? 78% of Millennials are considering alternative fuel vehicles; however, most electric and hybrid models remain costlier than their gas-guzzling cousins. Fortunately, prices are dropping rapidly, thanks to strong consumer interest. You can already lease several electric models for less than $200 a month, and the industry is at a key turning point to bring cheaper EVs to consumers.

It’s important we help maintain this momentum. Ford’s John Viera noted that scaling up production of electric vehicles lowers the manufacturing cost of less expensive hybrid vehicles- in turn enabling the company’s larger fleet to shift toward electrified products. Referring to this as the “democratization of electrification,” Viera indicated that consumer demand of electric cars drives down costs of more affordable models, such as hybrid vehicles.

Tesla Roadster.jpgBy demonstrating strong interest in a cleaner fleet of vehicles, our generation will signal to the car companies they will be long term buyers of EVs and hybrids. To match projected demand, the industry will place greater investment in advanced electrified products and infrastructure – a field ripe with employment opportunity for Millennials.

 

The impacts of all of these changes will be vast. But the most important impact will not be obvious.

Once the Net Impact conference was over, a few fellow participants and I headed to the top of the convention center for a beer. The view was incredible: the sun was setting against the mountains as the lights from thousands of cars streamed through the valley below. As I looked closer west, I noticed thick smog hung above the valley. It was tough not to consider how the vehicles below us affected the city’s air.

I am proud my generation is demanding electric engines and cleaner vehicles. And it’s inspiring to see we’re already getting to work.

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Comments

EnergysageDec 9 2013 02:10 PM

Electric cars are an excellent idea. But did you know that by going solar in addition to using an electric car you can actually save more. http://bit.ly/13ps3Ml

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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