Global factors could dictate how quickly the electric vehicle industry takes off in Georgia

Electric vehicles
Higher gas prices could lead more drivers to consider buying an electric vehicle, but manufacturers face issues keeping up with demand. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

When rolling out the red carpet for the electric truck maker Rivian, Gov. Brian Kemp touted the company’s future $5 billion Georgia manufacturing plant as transformational.

“Today is also about Georgia’s emerging leadership role in a booming, innovative industry that will benefit our state and our citizens for generations to come,” Kemp said in December, standing outside the state Capitol building with two Rivian electric trucks as a backdrop. “We have all been preparing for a company and a project like Rivian for a very long time.”

Skyrocketing gas prices could lead more drivers in metro Atlanta to consider buying an electric vehicle. But some of the same factors causing higher prices at the pump are also affecting electric vehicle production.

It all comes as Georgia continues to position itself as a hub for the EV industry. And the company Georgia is banking on to put it on the EV manufacturing map is young and unproven and is trying to ramp up production in a very tumultuous time in the world. 

Rivian’s first commercially-available vehicle didn’t start rolling of the production lines until last year.

“This is a launch-edition Rivian R1T,” said Rivian’s Leslie Hayward during a test drive around the streets of Atlanta. “It’s the first electric pickup truck available in the market in the United States. It’s quite a powerful truck, it goes from zero to 60 in three seconds, it can tow 11,000 pounds.”

There are a few thousand Rivian trucks on the road, but the first R1Ts produced in Georgia likely won’t come until early 2024.

The company currently is manufacturing the trucks at a plant in Illinois, where so far it’s had trouble keeping up with demand. Rivian blames this partially on supply chain issues.

Rising production costs also prompted the company to raise prices on truck orders that had already placed. Rivian later reversed that decision.

This uncertainty over microchips and materials for batteries prompts questions about how quickly EVs will be available to consumers in Georgia and beyond.

Batteries, after all, are at the heart and soul of electric vehicles.

Gleb Yushin, a professor of material science at Georgia Tech, says like everything else recently — the price for EV battery materials is up.

“If there’s some imbalance between supply and demand, the prices can go up,” Yushin said. “If there’s any political issue, any natural disaster, any war, the prices for nickel and cobalt may suddenly go up. Because the war in Ukraine, now the price of nickel is nearly doubled.”

But he also says researchers are developing technology that can convert more commonly-found materials into the things that power electric vehicles.

“I think in the long-term, we are safe. I think the question is what do we do in the near-term or mid-term,” said Yushin.

‘A big upswing in demand’

It’s not just Rivian and Tesla that are poised to capitalize in the EV wave. Local dealerships says interest has spiked in electric vehicles from legacy automakers, too.

“I see a very big upswing in demand,” said Bo Scott with Regal Nissan in Roswell. “I feel like 25 to 30% of our business could and should be EV in a very short term.”

With gas prices climbing well north of four dollars a gallon, Anne Blair with the Electrification Coalition says the time for EVs has arrived.

“We have long seen electric vehicles and the domestic EV industry as the most promising solution to break oil’s monopoly over our transportation system,” said Blair. “Our organization is working here in Georgia and in many other states across the country to advance policies that support expanding electric vehicles.”

But the speed with which EV makers can meet the demand will likely depend on factors well outside the borders of the Peach State.