Mexico Is Dreaming Bigger Than TeslaReading Time: 7 minutes
Electric vehicle companies are investing billions. But are they committed to real innovation?, How Tesla’s investment is shaping the Mexican EV industry.
In 2021, Bernardo Urriza, an engineering major at the Tecnológico de Monterrey’s Mexico City campus, built an electric vehicle for his graduating thesis. He wanted to prove to himself that he could. ‘If a 21-year-old could do it out of his garage, it was possible,’ he said. He collected huacales—wooden crates—for the car’s body, added foam, and played with the design. Working with classmates, Urriza used the electric motor of a golf cart for the engine, the bodywork of an old Volkswagen Beetle, and worked on the electric components (the computer, basically) to make it run. He named his prototype Anssatz for the German word ansatz, which means a possible solution to a mathematical or physics problem. The electric golf carts that he sells today—a miniature version of the cars he hopes to commercialize one day—are just that: ‘My proposal for a solution to Mexican electromobility,’ Urriza said.
That proposal is part of a much larger transformation in Mexico. As a Tesla Gigafactory arrives in the country and big automakers like General Motors, BMW, Ford, Stellantis, and Kia increase their electric vehicle production there, Mexico’s auto industry is gearing up to play a role in the world’s move toward electromobility. What’s less clear is whether the country will simply remain the American auto industry’s manufacturing muscle, or whether it will also seek to develop its own technologies.
Elon Musk’s choice of Monterrey, a city in northeast Mexico just a six-hour drive from Austin, as the site for Tesla’s largest plant to date wasn’t devoid of drama. Prior to Musk’s March 1 announcement, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had expressed opposition to the location. He argued that the Tesla plant should go to a central or southern state without drought or water scarcity issues like those in Monterrey—and at one point, even went as far as saying the government wouldn’t grant Tesla the permits to settle there. Just last year, Monterrey, a booming metropolis of 5.2 million people, experienced one of its worst water crises in recent history. Two of the main dams that supply the city’s water essentially dried up, leading to extensive water cuts for residents during the searing summer.
Still, there’s a long history of such investment in the northern state of Nuevo León, of which Monterrey is the capital. The state is an industrial powerhouse that has launched a number of multinational conglomerates and is also home to outposts of numerous foreign conglomerates. Buy a Lego set anywhere in the U.S., for instance, and there is a good chance it was manufactured in Monterrey. Apart from cement, steel, aluminum, glass, and other big industries, Nuevo León is the third-largest producer of auto parts in the country. In 2016, long before Tesla, Kia Motors established a plant in in the Monterrey exurb of Pesquería, which is locally referred to as ‘Peskorea,’ thanks to the automaker’s significant impact on the community.
Nationwide, Mexico is now the world’s fourth-largest producer of auto parts and the seventh-largest producer of light vehicles, accounting for about 3 million cars a year. The majority of these end up in the United States. As the auto industry undergoes a global shift to electric vehicles, market forces are pushing for changes in the Mexican auto industry as well. The European Union’s ban on sales of new nonelectric cars is MediaDownloaderd to be phased in starting in 2035, and the Biden administration wants to require that two-thirds of new cars sold in the U.S. be electric by 2032. ‘The direction is clear—let’s just look at the fast pace of the EV transition in the last three years,’ said Diana Páez, the senior director of energy and mobility at the University of Michigan’s William Davidson Institute. Quickly, Mexico went from thinking that the EV transition was a 15-to-20-year proposition to realizing it was a much more imminent reality, Páez told me.
The USMCA free trade agreement is another important driver behind the flow of investment to Mexico, especially because companies want to decrease their reliance on China after the semiconductor shortage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘The USCMA agreement forces [car assemblers] to buy regionally, ‘ said Manuel Montoya, the director of Nuevo León’s Auto Cluster, an association made up of industry leaders in the state. The agreement changes the rules of origin for motor vehicles, increasing the required minimum amount of North American content in the final car from 62.5 percent to 75 percent in order to qualify for duty-free treatment—which creates a big opportunity for Mexican suppliers.
The rumors about having a Gigafactory in Monterrey began circulating in December, and while Tesla created huge hype, it wasn’t the only automaker with big plans for Mexico’s electric auto industry. General Motors, for example, said it will produce only EVs in its Ramos Arizpe plant in the northern state of Coahuila by 2024, and BMW is investing $866 million in the central state of San Luis Potosi for its EV production.
‘The EV transition opens a lot of commercial opportunities for entrepreneurs,’ said Páez. ‘It can help Mexico meet its climate and sustainability goals, create a circular economy, and tap into business opportunities.’ The Tesla Monterrey plant could entail a $5 billion investment and about 6,000 jobs, according to government sources. The increase and arrival of EV production in Mexico also trickles down the supply chain. Tech company suppliers like Foxconn, Quanta, Pegatron, and Compal Electronics, who are Tesla suppliers, have also announced investment in Mexico. Tesla presents an additional opportunity for universities, if they manage to create a strong alliance with the automaker and government actors; they could both provide workers and strengthen their STEM programs and work in areas like energy generation, Páez said.
It’s no coincidence that Monterrey has a strong ecosystem of universities and trade schools. It is home to one of the country’s most prestigious private universities, the Tecnológico de Monterrey, or Tec, as well as the public Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León and others, which together generate a solid cohort of engineers and technicians who strengthen Monterrey’s position as a manufacturing hub across industries.
‘A student can’t be expected to learn inside a classroom, within four walls,’ said Gabriela Torres, director of research development and innovation at Tec. ‘Students learn from entrepreneurs, the industry, and social issues to address real industry challenges.’ The school’s curriculum has shifted to a challenge-based model, where classes partner with companies in different industries to solve real-world problems. The Tec has also invested heavily in its research labs, said Jorge Lozoya, leader of the E-Mobility Initiative at the Tec’s School of Engineering and Sciences. ‘The goal is to meet the needs of the industry with our electromobility labs.’
Tec currently has two labs working on electromobility in Monterrey, but the goal is to reach 10. Though its labs are modest in scale by comparison, people at Tec speak of mimicking the national labs north of the border. One researches batteries, energy storage and transfer, and charger technology, while the other is more focused on software for autonomous vehicles. ‘Tesla’s investment is going to be so big that it will align universities, the government, and industries in order to meet its quality and talent needs,’ Lozoya said.
For its part, the government of Nuevo León, alongside universities and industry, has put in place initiatives like Nuevo León 4.0 to foster technical and technological capacity, build infrastructure, and produce research in fields like robotics, new materials, and artificial intelligence. As part of the Tesla hype, Nuevo León’s Gov. Samuel García has announced a plan for a Tesla District and an Educate Tesla plan, which is meant to train engineers and technicians on new curricula specifically tailored toward the car company.
What a Tesla District will look like, and whether it becomes an incubator for a web of domestic tech startups, is yet to be seen. In the meantime, Kia announced a new electric car in their Pesquería plant, and García (who is widely expected to be angling for an eventual presidential run) is already calling Nuevo León an electromobility hub. ‘With this new investment, we will be the state that produces the most electric cars with Tesla, Kia, and Navistar’s electric trucks,’ he posted recently on his Instagram account.
Mariano García, a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, supervises student-led EV projects like Mictlán, an EV that reaches speeds of 50 mph. His goal is to prepare engineers to innovate and be ready to lead projects, rather than just serve as skilled labor. ‘I don’t like the idea of preparing engineers who will go and bring [technology] from China or Europe to assemble in Mexico,’ he says. ‘I want engineers to know how to make a motor, a battery, as these kinds of projects bring them closer to developing the technology.’ Mictlán recently raced in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2023 competition in Indianapolis—with lithium batteries imported from Europe this time around, but much more ambitious plans on the horizon. García and his team want to experiment with the batteries and mix imported lithium batteries with their own development of hydrogen cells. In the same way, said García, Tesla’s impact will ultimately depend on whether the company ‘will only assemble cars in Mexico to lower its labor costs—or if it will seek to innovate.’
This yearning to innovate was the same thing that pushed Urriza to create Anssatz just two years after graduating. ‘When you graduate from university, you don’t feel capable of doing ambitious projects,’ he said. As Mexican engineers, Urriza said, ‘We undervalue ourselves too often, but we are competitive.’ Without much money and through some degree of exploration on his own, his prototype of an electrical system for an EV car has now become his own company. ‘When we graduate, we tend to go to jobs like sales or roles where you implement existing technologies, not in design,’ Urriza said—but he wanted something different.
There is talent in Mexico that could transform the country’s auto industry, but it’s not the only factor shaping Mexico’s transition to EVs. Policy plays a pivotal role when it comes to guaranteeing infrastructure, energy capabilities, and incentives for both EV producers and users. López Obrador announced that 50 percent of all vehicles produced in Mexico will be zero-emission by 2030—a big jump from the current 5 percent. He didn’t specify goals for Mexico’s EV adoption, which is slow, as electric vehicles remain extremely expensive for the average Mexican buyer. In 2022, only about 6,000 EVs were sold in Mexico, compared to 807,180 in the U.S. that year. There are around 3,000 charging stations in Mexico, compared to the 150,000 in the U.S.
Tesla’s Monterrey plant will be a car assembly plant and not a battery plant or research development center, but it’s clear that Mexico wants to move in that direction. The country’s Plan Sonora aims to generate solar power, start lithium development, and produce EV batteries in the northern state of Sonora, among other actions in an ambitious (if long overdue, according to critics) renewable energy plan.
‘Mexico is just now taking the wheel to understand what its roadmap toward electrification will be,’ said Mauricio Jaramillo, a lawyer and the chair of the Mexico chapter of the Texas European Chamber of Commerce. ‘We still don’t know what the public policy around electrification will be,’ he said. ‘Will we produce EVs or incentivize imports? Or will we design a whole new industry?’
Urriza, for his part, has a plan for his Anssatz commercial electric vehicle. ‘The goal is to compete against Tesla. I would love to compete against them,’ he said. ‘Even if we end up going bankrupt, we would have helped accelerate Mexico’s pace toward electromobility.’
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