The Story of a Normal Car Factory: Abandoned by Gas Guzzlers, Soon to Be Buzzing With Electric Vehicles
When Mitsubishi shuttered its manufacturing operations in Normal, Illinois, almost four years ago, nearly 1,300 people lost their jobs. The plant that at its peak pumped out as many as 200,000 automobiles a year lay dormant for a couple of years, weeds growing through cracked pavement in its empty parking lot.
But a new car company has come to town—and it just scored a huge contract with the online giant Amazon to make 100,000 delivery vans. The plant’s new owners, the Detroit-based startup Rivian, will have the 2.6-million-square-foot auto plant up and running once again, but there is one thing it won’t be producing: combustion engines.
That’s right. The vehicles coming out of Normal will only run on electricity, a feature that will not only help Amazon shrink its carbon footprint (the company has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040) but also help the Rust Belt become a hub for a growing industry.
The New Normal?
On a crisp, sunny October day in Normal, car enthusiasts, job seekers, and baby-toting parents, along with Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker, strolled along Uptown Circle ogling two sleek electric trucks—one black, one blue—and a green SUV. The event, put on by Rivian, gave the community a chance to see the vehicles that will soon come off the assembly lines in Normal. It also gave people a chance to scope out job opportunities and view the technology that makes these vehicles so special.
As Rivian employees handed out T-shirts and mugs emblazoned with the company logo, CEO R. J. Scaringe told the crowd that his company is part of the community, a community that’s passionate about cars. “As you can see from today, this is not just us,” he said before adding that buying the Mitsubishi plant was about embracing the future.
Normal residents, including former Mitsubishi employees, are cautiously optimistic about the opportunities the company could provide for the community of 54,000 and its sister city of Bloomington, home to another 78,000 people. If all goes well, their new neighbors could be one more example of how technologically innovative companies working to reduce the country’s carbon footprint can help revitalize cities and towns abandoned by struggling industries.
“We have the talent in Illinois to provide to companies that want to come here and start their business or expand their business and grow,” said Governor Pritzker at the event. “That is what I think manufacturing and technology companies are looking for. We know that the future is green, and so Illinois is going to be a green state.”
Changing how we fuel cars, trucks, and vans will play a huge role in reducing the carbon pollution causing the climate crisis. Transportation, including ships, planes, trains, and motor vehicles, contributes 29 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the country’s single-biggest source of such pollution. Personal vehicles, such as cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks, account for 59 percent of those emissions.
Even as emissions from other big pollution sources, such as the electric grid, have generally been decreasing (though they ticked up again in 2018), those from transportation have not. And the Trump administration is slowing progress even further with its agenda to roll back vehicle emissions standards.
In a special report published last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that among other things, it will take rapid changes in the transportation sector to help keep global average temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, a threshold beyond which we could see disastrous consequences—seas engulfing coastlines, plants and animals going extinct, and food supplies coming up short.
But as drivers swap out gas guzzlers for electric cars and trucks, the energy that powers their vehicles could come from renewable sources like wind and solar instead of fossil fuels. Lawmakers in some countries have even said they hope to one day ban the sale of combustion engines. That has not yet come to pass, but the message to the world’s automakers is clear: make more electric vehicles.
A Good Fit
Tom Holloway was wearing denim and a baseball hat when I met him at the Rivian event. The 62-year-old was one of the last few dozen employees to be let go from the Mitsubishi plant when it shut down. For 25 years he had worked in utility maintenance, making sure the facility operated properly, but business began to wane in the mid 2000s. At peak production, Holloway worked alongside nearly 3,000 other people. Mitsubishi was the sixth-largest employer in the Bloomington–Normal area, but toward the end, Holloway says, the place felt pretty empty.
Town officials were desperate for a buyer for the plant, which was just months away from demolition when Rivian approached them. At first the automaker was looking only to purchase some equipment from the plant, but its scouts soon saw a bigger opportunity: an updated facility with equipment they needed plus a built-in workforce. Rivian decided to go the whole hog.
The purchase took a year while town officials vetted the company and verified that it had enough financial backing to set up shop. When the sale went through, Rivian hired a number of ex–Mitsubishi employees, including Holloway, who for the past two years has helped Rivian figure out the best layout for the plant. “It’s awesome to see quality jobs come back to the community,” he told me.
But an existing plant and a skilled workforce aren’t the only things that make Normal a good fit for Rivian. “This community is more advanced than you would think,” says Mayor Chris Koos, a bike shop owner who has been mayor since 2003. Located two hours southwest of Chicago, the town was the first place in the country to require LEED certification for new buildings. “It wasn’t Portland. It wasn’t Los Angeles. It was Normal that did that,” says Koos.
Normal is also where Tesla installed its first fast-charging Supercharger station in the Midwest. Back in 2011, town officials used a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to install four dozen electric charging stations, calling the initiative EV Town. Bloomington–Normal also has several local universities—Illinois State, Illinois Wesleyan, and Lincoln College Normal—that could help supply employees down the line. Another institution, Heartland Community College, has a six-year-old robotics program that could help prepare students for jobs at Rivian.
The values Rivian executives tout are the same as the community’s. “That fit was here,” says Koos. “I think they saw it.”
The Open Road
In the Rivian storefront on Uptown Circle, employees stood behind a long desk answering questions. Lined up in front of them stood several people, many with a folder or a resume in hand, documents that the staff carefully collected.
Troy Pinkley and Cindy Schapmire, both of whom had worked on the Mitsubishi assembly line, wanted to know what Rivian planned to pay its employees, but they didn’t get a clear answer. Pamela Purnell wanted information about what kinds of jobs the company would be offering. Another woman asked about her upcoming interview. Fathers approached the desk with sons and inspected signs that explained what to do if seeking employment at Rivian.
The company plans to hire about 1,000 workers by 2024 and produce 40,000 cars a year by 2022. Both of those numbers could go up as demand increases. Until now, the EV revolution has been a chicken-or-egg problem, says Scaringe. There weren’t enough EVs on the road to warrant a network of charging stations, but people were reluctant to buy EVs without knowing where they could charge them.
The vehicles Rivian plans to manufacture will go 400 miles on one charge.
And while states like Oregon, New York, and Michigan are developing charging infrastructure, Rivian says it will work to promote a network that will allow someone to drive an EV as he or she would a combustion car: without having to worry about finding a place to refuel. But Scaringe isn’t ready to disclose those plans just yet.
In the meantime, Rivian’s first trucks and SUVs for individual consumers could be on the road next year. And the first 10,000 vans for Amazon could be delivering packages by the end of 2021. Eventually the plant could manufacture 250,000 vehicles a year—50,000 more than Mitsubishi did in its heyday. To boot, the town’s next product will go nicely with its existing efforts to address climate and sustainability issues.
Communities need to consider those things or they’ll be “in trouble,” Koos said at the October event as people filed by to look inside the kids’ art tent, a collaborative effort between Rivian and the local Children’s Discovery Museum. “We’re facing climate change in this country. I think it is undeniable. We’re reaching some tipping points and we have got to do things,” he said. But the mayor said there’s another advantage to working with companies that consider those issues: it will make you stand out and give you a competitive advantage. Indeed.
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