The stage has 100 or so folding chairs arrayed before it, a platform behind them for the TV cameras. Auto-tuned pop blares from the speakers, drowning out most of the conversation among county council members, union people, politicians, and the occasional factory worker. The robots, with red lights flashing above their cages, are all but silent.
"Forward, not back," Governor Martin O'Malley-wearing the requisite blue suit and flag pin-says to someone as he grins and grips his way through the crowd.
The 110,000-square foot plant cost $230 million to build. The Federal Department of Energy contributed $105 million of that. The state of Maryland chipped in another $2 to 3 million. Baltimore County anted up $6.2 million-to be paid if employment targets are met.
Chances are excellent they won't be: There are about 20 employees, maybe 25 in the e-motor plant. There are 27 robots.
Appointed like this, running one shift per day, the plant can churn out 40,000 electric motors per year, according to Joe Connelly, the process engineer who set the place up and will later lead a tour. "As many as you want, we'll build 'em," he says.
That last quote is the party line. The 40,000 figure is, apparently, a slip. "That's a question about volume, and we don't discuss volume," says Mary Ann Brown, a GM spokesperson.
The likelihood that GM will require 40,000 of these motors appears very slim-for this car anyway. So the cost of these 25 jobs is approximately $9 million apiece, split evenly between the government and General Motors, which, at the time the deal was struck, was owned by the government.
"Jobs are the top priority of this administration," O'Malley says from the stage.
The police-chauffered governor says he is looking forward to the opportunity to "take a spin" in the car: "That's why I came out here, so I can drive."
And this, too, will be a rare opportunity not just for the governor of Maryland but for everyone on the East Coast and the Midwest and the mountain states for the foreseeable future. When introduced in June, the Spark is going to be sold only in California and Oregon. "We haven't said other locations within the U.S.," says Brown. Buyers in Canada, Europe, Mexico, and South Korea-the country where the car is assembled-will get it after that, she adds.
The Spark's is the first electric-car motor to be produced in the U.S. It boasts 130 horsepower, which is pretty good, and 400 foot-pounds of torque, which is huge. That amount of torque is about what a Corvette makes. No one can say how this little motor produces so much more power than similar motors. But the torque is what might give the Spark an edge in the electric-car market-if enough people get a chance to try it.
No one complains about the small number of jobs so far.
"Unfortunately, days like this don't come as often as we'd like," says Fred Swanner, president of UAW Local 239, from the stage. "So we are excited."
There are 250 employed at the site-here at the e-motor plant and next door, where they make truck transmissions. To get the county's $6 million bump, GM will have to increase the headcount to 374 people, about the estimate it made when it cut the deal three years ago.
But to get those hires, it's going to need either a huge increase in demand for trucks, an unprecedented demand for electric cars-or both. And the Spark EV, upon which the environmental halo has been hung, is unlikely to take off soon.
Begin with the price. GM has announced that the car will sell for "under $25,000" after the federal subsidy for electric cars is factored in. That equates to a sticker price in the $32,000 range. Nissan, meanwhile, has just cut the price of its all-electric Leaf to less than $29,000.
But the real problem, say EV experts, is that GM will not make the car available to most potential buyers.
On the stage, the governor says, "all of this comes down to one word, and that word is innovation."