Ford Will Source F-150 Lightning Batteries in U.S. after Just Missing a Battery Trade War05/27/2021
Ford, freed from a trade dispute involving two of its battery suppliers, will build the F-150 Lightning’s packs at a new plant now under construction in Georgia.
Late last week, the automaker said it will partner with SK Innovation, a Korean supplier that also makes batteries for Volkswagen and Kia, to assemble 60 gigawatts’ worth of batteries each year in Commerce, Georgia. That adds up to roughly 400,000 of the Lightning’s longest-range packs—a massive undertaking that, in sheer volume, represents nearly half of all F-series sales—and by 2030, Ford wants to quadruple that output from all of its battery plants worldwide. The joint venture is to be called BlueOvalSK, Ford said.
Ford can rightly boast about its manufacturing prowess now, but early last month, Dearborn appeared like a potential casualty in a bitter war between two of Korea’s biggest battery suppliers.
Ford had already been receiving heat from the United Auto Workers, which in March blasted the company for planning to build a second unnamed EV in Mexico, alongside the Mustang Mach-E, instead of in Ohio. But the bigger problem started back in April 2019, when LG Chem, which makes the Mach-E’s batteries, filed a dispute with the U.S. International Trade Commission against rival battery maker SK Innovation, which by year’s end in 2019 was under contract for the Lightning. At this same time, SK was breaking ground on its Georgia plant—its first in America, nearly a decade after LG Chem opened its first domestic plant for the Chevrolet Volt—that would supply Ford as well as Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant.
LG claimed SK stole trade secrets in part by hiring “about 100 of its employees,” according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The company filed a complaint against SK on April 29, 2019, to trigger what’s known as a Section 337 investigation. That part of a 1930 tariff law gives companies an expedited process outside the normal courts to seek damages against imported products that violate copyright, infringe patents, and “misappropriate trade secrets,” according to the Trade Commission.
In response to this complaint, a panel of judges can approve a cease-and-desist order against the offending company and block its imports. Only the President of the United States has authority to override the Trade Commission, and only within 60 days. At the end of May 2019, the Trade Commission announced it would investigate the claims. That put SK’s entire $2.6 billion factory, which promised 2600 jobs and hundreds of thousands of batteries for Ford and VW, in jeopardy.
By July 2020, both Ford and VW looked nervous on paper. VW had planned to build the ID.4 in Chattanooga using SK’s Georgia-built batteries in 2022, around the same time Ford wanted to begin Lightning production. In filings to the Trade Commission reviewed by Automotive News, VW predicted a “catastrophic supply disruption” if the ruling didn’t exempt the automaker from using locally built SK batteries. Ford warned that the “risk to such U.S. jobs is especially unacceptable in light of current economic conditions caused by COVID-19.”
In February of this year, the Trade Commission issued a definitive ruling: SK would be banned for 10 years from importing the raw materials and components it needed to assemble lithium-ion batteries. In a filing, the ITC said SK had a “very large volume of stolen trade secret documentation” from LG. However, it allowed SK to build VW batteries for the next two years and Lightning batteries for the next four. After that, without access to imported materials, battery assembly would be impossible. And SK hadn’t yet finished the plant or done the bulk of its hiring.
In the best scenario, Ford would have sourced another battery supplier well before the four-year deadline. In fact, the company expected that could happen. A Ford spokesperson told Car and Driver it has “had contingency plans in place” since the dispute originated two years ago. But from a cost and time perspective, Ford’s Plan B might not have guaranteed a spring 2022 launch. Had the Trade Commission ruling compelled SK to halt construction, Ford probably would have had to import the truck’s most expensive part—assuming overseas plants had capacity at this time—from an alternate supplier. Ramping up production in time to beat Rivian, Tesla, and General Motors to market with the first electric pickup would have proved difficult. And bragging rights, especially among truck manufacturers, are part of the point.
Georgia politicians had feared the plant would never open and were calling on President Biden to overrule the Trade Commission. Lawyers from both sides were trying to put together deals, according to the Journal-Constitution.
“All we want is for the plant to not use our technology, or if you want to use the technology, come clean to us and pay compensation under law, and we’ll be happy to discuss a commercial resolution to this,” an LG lawyer said, quoted by the paper in February.
In April, at the 11th hour—close against the Trade Commission’s 60-day deadline—SK agreed to pay LG $1.8 billion in a settlement. The ruling was dropped, LG was compensated, and SK is now allowed to build and sell the same batteries in the U.S. without any restrictions.
“Thankfully, the two companies resolved their dispute,” Ford’s spokesperson told C/D. “Both are valued collaborators to Ford, and we expect we’ll need both of them as they are important in helping the auto industry—especially in the U.S.—move to a more sustainable future with more fully electric vehicles.”
LG isn’t done expanding in the U.S., either. The company is building a second plant with GM scheduled to open in 2022, according to the Wall Street Journal. Here’s hoping everyone involved can still get along.
From: Car and Driver
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