With two assembly plants and a leading research facility, Illinois has positioned itself to become a center of the technology transforming the automotive industry. As automakers move to replace internal combustion engines with electric powertrains over the next decade or two, states are racing to stake their claims to electric vehicle manufacturing and the jobs it will create.
So far, established automakers are primarily concentrating production in Michigan, Tennessee, Indiana and South Carolina. Newcomers such as Tesla and Lucid have chosen Nevada, Texas and Arizona.
Illinois beat out Texas and Michigan for the Lion plant, a sign of the state’s competitiveness in the industry. If it can lure a flock of electric vehicle parts suppliers, Illinois will hang on to its role as one of about a dozen states that account for most U.S. auto production, preserving a key source of high-paying manufacturing employment as well as advanced technical jobs.
“Illinois has both a strong manufacturing history and increasingly strong digital and artificial-intelligence capabilities, which will be relevant. Argonne is a central battery-tech center,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program whose work has focused on the nation’s technology clusters. “Clearly there are possibilities for Illinois here.”
The state ranks ninth in U.S. auto production, just behind South Carolina and ahead of Texas, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. Automakers, including Ford in Chicago and Stellantis in Belvidere, employ about 36,000 in Illinois. An additional 36,000 work at auto parts makers in the state, according to the Illinois Manufacturing Association.
Illinois also is home to heavy-equipment makers Caterpillar and Deere. Both are moving toward electric-powered vehicles, as is Illinois-based truck and bus maker Navistar, which has agreed to be acquired by Volkswagen. Navistar won’t be making electric vehicles in Illinois, but its engineering design teams are based in Lisle. Foxconn has said it will decide this year whether to make electric vehicles at a plant just over the Illinois border in Racine, Wic., a possibility highlighted by the Taiwanese tech manufacturing giant’s May 13 announcement of a partnership with EV startup Fisker.
Lion Electric CEO Marc Bédard says the Montreal-based company chose Illinois in part because of the state’s location and talent base, even though Illinois’ $7.9 million incentive package wasn’t the highest.
“There is a very rich culture of manufacturing in Illinois,” Bédard says. “People know how to manufacture things. Having labor that has a lot of knowledge in manufacturing trucks and buses, that was one of the boxes on our list that Illinois checked.”
Illinois already has more than 5,000 workers in the electric transportation industry—about 3,500 of them in the Chicago area, according to a study last month commissioned by the trade group Advanced Energy Economy. The study, which was completed before the Lion announcement, predicts the work force will nearly double by 2024 to 9,500 workers.
“There is a lot of precision manufacturing already in Illinois that sets the state up to get more than its fair share,” says Phil Jordan, a vice president at BW Research Partnership and lead author of the report. The study identified more than 500 Illinois companies connected to electric vehicles, including established suppliers such as NTN Bearing, which has offices and plants in Mount Prospect, Schiller Park, Elgin and Macomb.
Yet the state’s electric-vehicle hopes depend largely on the success of startups Lion and Irvine, Calif.-based Rivian, which are likely to face competition from larger manufacturers. Bolstering the prospects of both companies are deals to build vehicles for Amazon.
“They’re not all going to make it,” says Kristin Dziczek, head of research at the Center for Automotive Research. “A lot depends on how well the startups manage their ramp-up to full-scale operation.”
Lion plans to hire about 800 workers for the Joliet plant, which will begin production late next year, but it also plans to hire engineers here. Headcount could reach 1,400 in five or six years, Bédard says. Rivian has more than 1,000 workers in Normal and expects headcount there to top 2,500 by year-end.