The Automotive Industry: The Road To Everywhere

While we are still deep in the drive toward technical and autonomous, what’s old is new and what’s mine is yours when it comes to next year’s auto trends.

Alabama: Growing Auto Industry Poised For Electrifying Future

A little more than a generation ago, Alabama’s auto industry barely existed. Today, the state’s most dynamic industrial sector is racing toward the future of mobility, with plans to introduce electric vehicles—and build out a network of suppliers to make that rapidly possible.

German luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz laid the foundation for Alabama’s auto industry when the first M-Class sport utility rolled down the assembly line in 1997. Almost 25 years later, Mercedes is reimagining vehicles—to be built in Alabama—that will be in high demand around the world.

automotive industry
As it prepares to launch electric vehicle production, Mercedes-Benz’s Alabama operation is looking to hire several hundred workers before year’s end, and additional team members throughout 2022 and 2023. (Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

Beginning in 2022, the automaker will begin manufacturing two electric SUVs at its 6-million-square-foot plant in Tuscaloosa County. The EQE and EQS vehicles are made possible by a $1 billion investment that includes the construction of a new EV battery pack assembly facility at a second Alabama campus.

That’s not all. Hyundai also plans to start producing EVs at its Alabama facility in 2022, with full plans still to be announced as part of a $7.4 billion company-wide mobility initiative that also covers hydrogen refueling stations and unmanned flying taxis.

And in October 2021, Toyota unveiled a new engine line at its Alabama plant that will produce a new hybrid electric twin-turbo V-6 engine, a milestone for the Huntsville facility.

“Our auto industry is focused on the future and will continue to adapt to meet all the challenges that come with electrification,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “We will be there every step of the way, lending our resources to assist with this seismic transition for the industry.”

Alabama will also play a role in the evolution of the nation’s auto industry in other ways.

When Colorado-based Westwater Resources Inc. wanted to expand its mission to deliver minerals for clean, sustainable energy production, it looked to what was once called “Alabama’s Graphite Belt”—an area rich in deposits of a key component in EV batteries and other devices.

In June 2021, Westwater announced an ambitious plan to open the first U.S. graphite processing plant in Coosa County, aiming for the facility to become a go-to location for this important resource in battery manufacturing. Total investment in the project is expected to reach $124 million over two phases.

In addition, Alabama is already emerging as a player in technologies focusing on end-of-life EV batteries. Birmingham-based Southern Research is working on a project to repurpose the batteries—which could end up as hazardous waste in a landfill—as energy storage systems for offices and factories.

Through a partnership with Mercedes, Canada-based Li-Cycle Holdings Corp., the leading lithium-ion battery recycler in North America, plans to build a recycling facility near the automaker’s Tuscaloosa assembly plant. Li-Cycle’s recycling facility will have an initial annual capacity of 5,000 tons of battery manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries, with plans to double that.

The project addresses the battery repurposing proposition that must also be a part of the sustainability solution that EVs offer.

“We have a responsibility to not only manufacture vehicles and batteries, but to be good corporate citizens in the choices we make to protect our environment and the community around us,” Michael Göbel, president and CEO of Mercedes’ Alabama operation said when Li-Cycle’s project was announced in September 2021.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s auto industry is showing plenty of signs that its growth is accelerating.

With the production launch at Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, Alabama became home to another one of the world’s most advanced auto assembly plants. With a total investment of $2.3 billion, the Huntsville operation has adopted best practices from both Mazda and Toyota, and applied them to technologically advanced assembly lines that will produce up to 300,000 vehicles per year.

The first all-new Toyota Corolla Cross rolled down the plant’s assembly line in September 2021, while the Mazda CX-50 crossover SUV will make its debut at the Alabama plant in January 2022.

Other key developments include:

  • Earlier this year, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama added two models—the Tucson SUV and the Santa Cruz, a new crossover model—to the production lineup at its Montgomery factory.
  • Honda’s Alabama plant, celebrating 20 years of production in 2021, launched the new TrailSport badge for rugged off-road versions of its Passport SUV, with the Ridgeline pickup and Pilot SUV likely to follow.
  • Last year, Michigan-based DURA Automotive Systems became one of the first auto suppliers to make an EV-related investment in Alabama, with a $59 million project to open a facility to produce battery trays for electric vehicles.

All this activity means the industry is in full hiring mode. In fact, Alabama’s automakers and their supplier networks have launched hiring waves, with thousands of jobs now available. They’re getting assistance from AIDT, Alabama’s primary workforce development agency.

“We are full partners with all of our auto OEMs and almost all their suppliers in the workforce space, having recruited, assessed and trained workers for many years and through all their expansions,” said Ed Castile, director of AIDT and deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“We are currently working with the Alabama operations of Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz on fairly large expansions, with Honda on a series of smaller expansions and with Mazda Toyota Manufacturing as it starts up,” Castile said.

The industry’s rapid adoption of electric vehicle technology has created new priorities for AIDT, which has embraced new training techniques that include virtual reality and other advances.

“With the introduction of the new EV technologies, all of AIDT programs are laser focused on our rapidly expanding automotive business,” Castile said. “We are proud to work shoulder to shoulder with all as we assist them in developing their respective workforces.”