By on March 12, 2009

One of the signs that a new technology has matured is when whole industries are worried about getting wiped off the earth as a result of that new technology. If that happens, change has finally arrived.

Industries are getting worried about electric vehicles. The machine-tool sector is very troubled, writes the Nikkei [sub], and it is worried for two reasons: “Plummeting demand from recession-hit clients is threatening the industry’s very existence, as the increasing focus on electric vehicles by ailing carmakers could eventually eliminate the need to machine parts for engines.” And why would that be?

A transfer machine for instance links several machining centers, drills and other specialized tools to process engine blocks, cylinders and the like, moving work in progress from one stage to the next continuously through final processing.

An executive at one Japanese machine-tool maker nearly fainted when a Toyota purchasing manager said, “If electric vehicles spread widely, there’ll be no need for transfer machines.”

“The rise of electric vehicles will spell more than the demise of just the internal combustion engine,” says the Nikkei. “Transmissions and braking systems will likely be replaced by electric control motors as well. A gasoline-powered car consists of roughly 30,000 parts, half of them related to the engine. Electric vehicles are expected to require one-tenth of that.”

Of course, this will not happen overnight. Just like desktop publishing didn’t wipe out conventional pre-press and printing overnight, and just like digital video didn’t obsolete huge editing studios overnight. But we all know how those fared.

Politicos have shouted, “Where are our electric cars to save the jobs?” Bet they haven’t thought of the electric cars themselves devouring whole high value industries.  China, India and all the low-wage countries are importing nearly all their machine tools. Soon, they won’t need them anymore.

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42 Comments on “Electric Cars Are Job Killers...”

  • avatar

    Interesting article, Bertel.

    Of course, the problem with electric cars are several.

    Initial vehicle expense ranging to several hundred percent higher than I/C or hybrid cars (even with huge mass production) due to the outrageously expensive batteries, no matter which high-technology solution is used.

    Lack of adequate heating and/or therefore range for much of the world and much of the year (says me as I sit it 12 degree F. northwestern Michigan on March 12th)

    Once battery production ramps up, where will all of the rare earths for permanent magnet motors; where will all the rare earths and lithium come from for all of the batteries?

    These industries are pretty maxed out NOW with just cell phones and hybrid electric cars.

    Nobody’s much thought of that, have they?

    Will we have “lithium wars” instead of “oil wars”?

  • avatar

    It all trickles down. Electric cars would also eliminate jobs for assembly, technicians, and over time would probably put not only OEMs, but the aftermarket in danger as well. Electric cars overall would cause a lot of shrinkage in the marketplace.

  • avatar

    re: lithium wars
    Bolivia has half the world’s known lithium. Does this sound like a situation that we are familiar with? hint: Saudi Arabia/oil.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    If we were burning the Lithium for propulsion instead of just installing it in batteries, then I’d be worried too.

  • avatar

    After reading this, I need some lithium for mood management!

  • avatar

    So the idea is to preserve every industry no matter how obsolete? Why not resurrect the vinyl LP industry, or cassette tape makers?

    And yes, the “won’t happen overnight” is a bit meek, isn’t it. This change will happen over decades.

  • avatar
    Casual Observer

    We don’t have horseshoers anymore, either.

  • avatar

    Ahh, the law of unintended consequences raises it’s ugly head yet again.
    I want you guys to remember this story when I go off on another “the government isn’t capable of running an economy” rant.

  • avatar

    Progress kills jobs. Sometimes it creates them too.

    Not only will electric cars require less initial parts and machining, but they will also last longer.

    The motor and drivetrain will be incredibly durable, and the battery will be easily replaceable (and cheap if electric cars have actually taken off).

    Hopefully the UAW won’t hear about this; then they will demand job banks to support them if they are laid off because electric vehicles require less labor input, just like they go on the jobs bank if they are replaced by a robot now (I know the jobs bank is supposedly being suspended, but that is apparently in name only).

    Still, other than the Tesla and some glorified golf carts (Zap!, GEM) most every proposed “electric” vehicle is a series hybrid with an IC for recharging and extra power, so IC manufacturing probably won’t be dead for a while.

    On the other hand, of the parts above a series hybrid does not require a transmission, driveshaft or conventional brakes.

  • avatar

    Because electric motors, hybrid technology, and supporting hybrid technology fall from the sky and don’t require a vast business and manufacturing structure them selves were all doomed!

    Just like all those jobs we lost b/c of the computer. We all know IT comes from the IT Gods and it provides no jobs at all.

  • avatar

    This is the whole beauty of electric cars – their inherent simplicity from a mechanical standpoint. And it’s about time – I mean, really, cars are getting too complicated (any technology hacked away for a century or so by engineers eventually becomes too complicated, with diminishing returns – and then comes a new breakthrough, initially very simple, that wipes all of that out, and the cycle starts again).

    As for batteries, they are recyclable, no? At least far more recyclable than the CO2 and CO that comes when you burn oil-based products.

    The only thing that would be a shame would be to lose all that precision mechanical engineering knowledge – I hope that if these industries disappear, that they “open source” their designs – who knows what kind of use might be found for them…

  • avatar

    Until there are several hundred mile batteries with five or even ten minute charging times, I don’t anticipate evs making much of a dent. A recent French study–suppressed by Sarko, who somehow has ties to EV people–said that in 2030, pure EVs would be a small part of the mix. Hybrids–another matter. Asians take a much much much longer view than American business.

    Of course, these sorts of transitions are part of normal economic evolution. 100 years ago, a large percentage of Americans were farmers.

    OOPS! I didn’t see the news item two down about coated batteries with 5 minute charge times. Now, all we need are batteries with about ten times the energy density. If I were a machine tool exec, I’d now be quaking.

  • avatar

    I still curse Hentry Ford for his prominent role in wiping out the horse-drawn carriage business.

  • avatar

    lithium is pretty abundant on the planet , ok, most of the easy
    lithium is in bolivia and chile, but it can also be extracted from sea water, at higher cost .
    The cost of lithium cells for use in cars is dropping
    quite nicely at the moment , myself and a friend have just taken delivery of 16 kw/h of HI Power cells for around $10k including
    charger and management for a conversion project . OK its a lot
    of cash but this a one off price to a private individual so I would
    think the OEM price for this size of battery , which is incidently
    the same size as the battery used in the VOLT should be around
    $4to5k .
    A previous poster mentioned rare earth magnets , most electric motors for cars at the moment are AC and do not use
    permanent magnets .

  • avatar

    Your mentioning of transfers is telling. What many (I mean those few who really know and understand what transfers are and what they do) may not realize is that transfers were very controversial when they debuted in the 60s. They were adopted on a large scale, and in a very short time frame in the Chrysler plant where I worked. Before them, if a part required, say, 30 machining operations, then, you had 30 machines and 30 operators. A 30 station transfer, by contrast, typically required 2 people: a loader and an unloader. We had a 52 station knuckle transfer at our plant–an awesome, part-spewing sight to behold.

    See the connection here? Now we’re bemoaning the loss of these machines that, intitially, cost thousands of jobs.

    Oh, and the demonic UAW did not block their adoption.

  • avatar

    If the impact of electric cars is that they consume fewer economic resources in their making, then I’d be all for it. Not that I’m devoid of sympathy for people who lose their jobs, precisely, but for society to be better off requires change, and change is accompanied by shifts in the labor market.

    People can get new jobs. Like most people I know, I’ve changed jobs and careers multiple times already, so I don’t view someone’s current job as a sacred thing to be worshiped.

    BUT the thing is that if a comparable electric car costs more than an ICE car, that pretty well indicates that the EV is consuming more economic resources in its making, not less. It’s a simple thing to draw a diagram of what equipment an EV doesn’t need — and far more complex to understand what all is actually involved and consumed in its development and production.

  • avatar

    Wrt the picture above, I think disk brakes will be around for a while. Even with regenerative braking, you still need some sort of friction brake.

    So it sounds like it’s circle the wagons time in the ICE auto industry.

    Electric-Car Fever: Grand Visions at the Geneva Auto Show – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International
    The public euphoria over the electric car is actually “harmful to the market,” explains Bernd Bohr, the head of the automobile division at Bosch. According to Bohr, some consumers, loath to spend money on what they believe to be obsolete technology, are holding off on buying new cars with gasoline engines.

    It’s called progress, my friends.

  • avatar

    The scale of the ICE auto manufacturing industry may be what’s driving the cost difference for comparable cars (along with battery technology). I don’t think we know yet.

    I do know that it wasn’t long ago that a complete revolution in avionics for light aircraft made it so that a glass cockpit (all electronic) could replace a traditional one with less features for a similar price. The change was made possible by the use of gyros that are now used in cars. Before the car manufacturers started using them, they were insanely expensive. When someone found out they could sell millions of them at the right price, they figured out how to do it.

    Now we can get systems that let us see using infra red cameras and also let us see a virtual world on a screen. Auto land, as now seen in only a few models of jets, wouldn’t have been far behind. It may not be around for a couple decades now though, both the Bush and the Obama administrations have done their best to make light aircraft less attractive for both leisure and business.

  • avatar
    Eric Bryant

    OK, but what about all the new jobs that we’d create? Motor laminations need to be stamped from sheets of electrical steel, magnets need to be sintered and ground to shape, copper wire needs to be wound around the stator and terminated. Motors will need finely-machined components like shafts and housings, and will be bolted to gearboxes that require ground gears and other high-precision components.

    Man, change sure does turn some folks into whiny little children.

  • avatar

    I’m looking forward to the revival of carrozzeria that EVs will bring. With a wide base of component suppliers and the lack of emissions homologation and much reduced service infrastructure, the lower barriers to entry will allow a lot more manufacturers to exist. New designs, adventurous ideas, rapid product development, all these will bring new jobs.

    Making things easier and more accessible to a wider range of users results in general economic expansion, though it’s true that not every sector benefits.

  • avatar

    “We don’t have horseshoers anymore, either.”

    FWIW, like the vinyl and magnetic tape industries actually persisting, albeit on a much smaller scale and at higher cost, so do “horseshoers,” except they prefer the term farrier.

    Hazard: you’re absolutely right. As much as I think most of us love the advanced development of internal combustion engines and the joy they’ve brought, I wonder if the line of diminishing returns wasn’t crossed perhaps as long as a few decades ago. I mean, direct injection, variable timing, flame front optimization and all that is sexy engineering, but it’s refining a system that’s 130 odd years old. Look at the enormous costs involved in eeking out greater efficiency and power from motors today, and that, from a system that’s fundamentally inefficient. And even as horsepower has become relatively cheap at the consumer level, the costs of motor design are enormous. Look at F1’s recent cost-cutting measures as a demonstration of that.

    I love my precision motor hardware. I’m crazy about shuffle pinned, boat-tailed 7R cases with Nikasil Mahle P&Cs, Bosch MFI pumps and all that, but I’m also crazy about progress, and the internal combustion engine is (or should be) headed the way of magnetic tape, LPs, and horseshoes: not exactly dead, but a niche industry catering to collectors, hobbyists, and cranks!

  • avatar


    Not necessarily so on the braking thing.

    Diesel-Electric trains use dynamic braking:

    Dynamic brakes can also be easily modulated to produce a similar action to hydraulic anti-lock brakes. This allows maximum braking force (without locking the wheels) while using braking energy to recharge the batteries.

    Hydraulic braking systems will go away eventually once the car becomes electric. They are heavy and the hydraulic pumps lower the efficiency and reliability of the car.


  • avatar

    There is a bit of sensationalist reporting to this.

    “An executive at one Japanese machine-tool maker nearly fainted when a Toyota purchasing manager said, ‘If electric vehicles spread widely, there’ll be no need for transfer machines.\'”

    Whenever Toyota talks in Japan I’m sure auto suppliers listen very closely, but that “if”, within the next 20 years, is still a big if. Although less big with the rapid recharge lithium-ion technology that was reported earlier today.

    In the short term IC machining tools will experience increased demand as India and China mobilize with what will be at best series hybrids.

    That’s kind of like saying “If energy from fusion is finally perfected we won’t need any wind/solar/clean coal/fission based energy.” I hope fusion is finally perfected, but until then there will be a lot of need for the above alternatives. Hopefully the industries and people in those fields will not try to undermine fusion.


    The UAW didn’t block transfer machines, but it did learn its lesson from not blocking them. That’s why the job bank program provides that “Eligible employees can not be laid off because of new technology (robots), sourcing decisions, or company-implimented efficiency actions.”

    The UAW isn’t demonic, it is just self interested at the expense of progress. If the US had safety nets like national health insurance and job retraining then the UAW would probably not fight so hard in ways that have undermined the Detroit automakers.

    And, as the UAW says, there are two signatures on every contract. The UAW, and the myopic, insulated, moronic GM, Ford or Chrysler manager that said “Well, we really can’t afford a strike right now, and how threatening can those Japanese production methods really be?”

  • avatar

    Fascinating discussion here…

    I’m with Ferrygeist in that I love me some “precision motor hardware”; and I’m fascinated by the things that these machine tools can do… but I can also see that a change (of some sort) is coming, and only a fool fights the tide.

    Bertel, maybe you know — what percentage of the machine tool industry is taken up by supplying the automakers? I would assume that it’s a big number… especially for the high end tools like the ones you are discussing..

  • avatar

    @no_slushbox: Sensationalist reporting is me. Without sensations, there would be no feelings ….

    But no, there is no Big-Within-The-Next-20-Years if. It’s happening right now. From the Nikkei:

    “In March, Jtekt Corp. began suspending operations for five days a month on a line for cast and other parts at its Kariya plant in Aichi Prefecture, which was operating at full capacity last spring, sometimes working through holidays.

    Jtekt’s main products are abraders and transfer machines.”

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    zerofoo: trains still have mechanical brakes too. Regenerative or dynamic braking can only generate as much braking force as the motor/generator has in propulsion capacity. Trains, and cars need much more than that for emergency stopping. Car brakes generate the equivalent of 1000hp. EV’s will still have disk brakes, but electrically actuated, at least before long.

  • avatar

    Any chance that reduction in capacity you quote was due to the ECONOMY? Or the global crash of the entire manufacturing industry?

    Nope, gotta be those dang electric cars…

  • avatar

    Regenerative braking and dynamic braking are related. Reread my comment and the article you linked.

    I suppose I should have elaborated. Often the deceleration provided by an electric motor in regen is only as good as its best acceleration. 0 to 60 in 4 seconds may be impressive, but you might need to go from 60 to 0 in much less time.

    The main issue, however, is that you want some sort of friction brake for times when you need to hold the car stationary, for example when stopped on a hill. An electric motor could waste a lot of energy in this situation and might even burn itself out.

    So for safety and, yes, efficiency reasons, I expect friction brakes to stick around.

  • avatar

    when i was comin up in the ex-urbs, my job was to mow the huge lawns, and by extension, care for all the lawn mowers. We has lots and lots of gas powered mowers, always in need or something. nevermind the pull start which i recognized even at 11, was a pain in the ass.

    Then we got an electric mower. Plug it in, it ran. All the time. No muss, no fuss. Leave it out under a pile of leaves in the winter? no prob. No more oil, gas, spark plugs, fumes, etc, etc. Bliss. Down side, the cord. A fair trade off, said I.

    My point is this. When people get an electric car and realize how much there is NOT to do, how few the trips to the shop are necessary, how nice it is to live without the smell of gas on everything, they will be sold, damn the inconveniences. It is inevidable. So you can’t get in your car and decide to drive across the country on a whim? SO what. Most people commute during the week, and then got to the store on saturday. We are within a whisper of that being feasable right now.

    Personally, I cant wait. I beleive that there will be lots of people selling all manner of things to go with them. Therefore, new jobs. I am not concerned.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    The future will bring us simple electric vehicles, but also highly sophisticated cars that blow your balls off, so to speak. And building such cars is not exactly like screwing a lawnmower together. Tomorrow, I will post something about a car of the latter category — the Giugiaro Namir.

  • avatar

    Until there are several hundred mile batteries with five or even ten minute charging times, I don’t anticipate evs making much of a dent.

    Agreed. There is a market for electric cars with a short range and 8 hour recharge cycle, but that market is small.

    Diesel-Electric trains use dynamic braking

    Just as hybrid electric cars use regenerative braking to supplement hydraulic braking, diesel-electric locomotives use dynamic braking to supplement their air brakes. Diesel-electric locomotives, and the rail cars they pull, have an air brake system with cylinders, shoes, air reservoirs, etc.

    Electric cars will still require hydraulic brakes, just as is the case with current hybrids.

  • avatar

    Landcrusher:The scale of the ICE auto manufacturing industry may be what’s driving the cost difference for comparable cars (along with battery technology). I don’t think we know yet.
    I do know that it wasn’t long ago that a complete revolution in avionics for light aircraft made it so that a glass cockpit (all electronic) could replace a traditional one with less features for a similar price.

    Sure … these are examples of how manufacturing scales and learning curves, as well as new technologies, enable us to satisfy needs using fewer economic resources per unit. Generally more capital, more silicon, more computing power, but much less labor.

  • avatar

    My electric bike has a regenerative back brake and a disc front brake. Works like a charm, regen normally, front in emergency.

    Electro is the future for the next 10 years I would wager….and rightly so.

    Unless MDI Technologies get their compressed air technology into the mainstream. It is by far away the coolest tech/transport solution I have seen around recently. 65mph for 65 miles on one blast of compressed air that takes 1.5 minutes to refill…and no lithium from those pesky Bolivians either !!

    A pity air is so expensive!

  • avatar

    Oh yes, in the end, the robots will make and service the robots that make the other things.

    That was my point, I think that a lot of the economic resource in a present, low volume, electric car is labor that will disappear with volume.

  • avatar

    Sorry, but no_slushbox brought up health care. I beg to differ that the UAW would be competitive with a National Healthcare Plan. As with most unions in countries with National Healthcare, they would have a for-pay health insurance of their own as National Healthcare systems are usually pretty poor. It’s basic coverage but specialized services etc. get put on a waiting list.

    For instance, my wifes eye appointment yesterday would have taken about 4 months but since she is a member of the bankers union, SBSS got her in same day. To us, that’s worth the 50 euro a month.

    Of course, it would probably be cheaper for the employer and the employee with a National Healthcare Plan to run with independent health insurance…

  • avatar

    The loss of transfer-machine makers is only the beginning. If we allow technology to run amok, we could also lose typewriter makers, phonograph makers and astrolabe makers.

    Think about it!

  • avatar


    You misread my post. I don’t think there is anything that would make the UAW competitive. My point was simply that the UAW might not have fought so hard to burden the Detroit automakers with unnecessary employees if those unnecessary employees had a safety net to fall back on.

    On the other hand, Europe has very strong safety nets yet still burdens its employers with laws that make it almost impossible to lay off unnecessary, redundant workers, so I could be wrong.

  • avatar

    Electric vehicles are job killers? Gee, when automobiles appeared in the early 20th century, they put a real hurt on livery stables, horseshoe manufactures, buggies, makers of buggy whips, farriers…to name a few. Electric vehicles will
    destroy jobs, they will also create jobs in manufacturing of motors…manufacture of shafts, housings, armatures, wiring, battery fabrication
    and manufacture. The process will probably create
    as many jobs as it destroys.

  • avatar

    Oh the horror, someone’s gone and moved the auto industry’s cheese again. Come on folks, change happens. Some people see progress as a threat, others as an opportunity.

  • avatar

    Let’s not celebrate electric cars too soon here. It’s a 30 degree high today. Batteries don’t do so well in such weather. Plus you then have to use electric resistance to heat the car as well. Both battery life killers. And let’s not even talk about places like North Dakota! I don’t really think you will see electric car’s there for a really long time.

  • avatar

    “My point was simply that the UAW might not have fought so hard to burden the Detroit automakers with unnecessary employees if those unnecessary employees had a safety net to fall back on.”

    Well, if they were really interested in employee welfare, that would be true, but that’s not how it has evolved. Planning on the reasonableness of the unions hasn’t really been an option or decades now. I don’t think that’s just being anti-union that makes me say that either. It’s the other way around. These guys will push for whatever they can get, and they are more about their own power than the longterm employee welfare. Especially since the older employees have more influence, and they just don’t percieve it’s possible for the cow to die. They want to milk it, milk it, milk it. The incentives in the set up are all wrong.

  • avatar

    The whole post is absurd.  To argue that building a less efficient car will save jobs is the same as arguing against any mechanization vs. manual labor.  Don’t build a backhoe becuase pick and shovel workers will lose their jobs. 

    America needs an automaker that will build a more efficient car.  The Electric car has been around for a long time.  In 1906 there were more electric cars than gas powered cars in NY city.  The Electric Buses on Boston’s MBTA served reliably for over a half decade.  The battery argument does not even factor in the new ultra capicitors recently developed at MIT.  Shock absorbers turn mechanical energy into heat.  Could these not become heat pumps? 

    How about new form factors like the tango.  Only as wide as a motorcycle, these could double highway and city street traffic capacity and double the number of parking spaces.  No more traffic jams, no more parking tickets.

    No tolls for electric vehicles.  Get rid of toll booths.

    How about a hybrid vehicle that could drive to a mass transit grid and get on board with a computer routed destination, rails or monorail, no accidents, no driving.  You could eat, read or just sleep on your commute.  Your vehicle would get charged along the way.

    None of these appoaches would waste oil, cause pollution of contribute to the bogus crap called global warming.

    The bodies of the cars would be carbon fiber, 60% lighter than steel, 600% stiffer.  Just like formula one cars that survive crashes at 200 MPH. 

    How many <b>Sustainable</b> jobs would be created in bringing all of the above to pass.  This is called working smarter not harder. 

    All of this can come to pass with only one goverment action.  A floating gasoline tax.  Every year the price of gasoline goes up 1$ per gallon.  Anything done by OPEC is irrelleveant.  In 2010 gas costs $3 per gallon.  No matter the market price unless it goes over $3 per gallon.  By 2015 gasoline will $8 per gallon. No matter the market price.

    The revenue should be distributed as matching venture capital funds for those building alternatitive methods of transportation. 

    We can stop being jerked around by OPEC.  They pump oil to lower the price whenever a competing technology starts to get traction.  Whether it is solar, wind, tidal, electric cars or anything else.  They gouge us until competition starts,  this sucks up capital, they pump more oil and lower the price, the capital is lost.   I worked for an MIT spinoff called Energy and Innovation over 30 years ago.  Bright minds and solid investors lost money.  This cycle repeats itself over and over.  Are we insane?

    A chunk of the money we send off to the middle east helps fund the Jihad against America.  The dollar is weekened. Our trade imbalance grows.  Interest rates go higher as a result.  You will see electric cars, they will be the rage, but unless we all wake up, they will all be made in China.

    The are lot of new fortunes that could be made in America,  but we must first vote out the incumbents.  Established special interests bought them, and once elected, incumbancy keeps them in power.

    I am semi retired, but very worried about the future of my grandchildren.  You are a smart group.  If you are worried, start thinking about change.  Not Obama’s ode to change but real change.  Capitalism is about capital. America is all about innovation.  Innovation requires capital.  Our capital should not go to functionaires on Wall Street, nor to elected officials.  It should go to innovation.  This is the America I will fight and die for.  This is the America I love.

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