A Driving Force

Georgia once saw its auto industry in decline. Today, it’s one of the capitals of the car world, with billions in new investments.

Drive North on I-75 toward Atlanta, and you might be greeted by a colorful sight as you approach Hapeville: lime-green Porsche 718 sports cars in hot pursuit of fire-engine-red 911s, decked out in big wheels and elaborate aerodynamic add-ons, all in the name of sticking to the track as best they can. The massive rear-end wings on the cars fit perfectly into the landscape, as they loop around a test track built at Porsche Cars North America headquarters, right next door to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport.

“It’s a real workout for both the driver and the cars, with elevation changes and relentless action,” says Michelle Rainey, director of the Porsche Experience Center near Atlanta. Born in Germany, Rainey told the Girls Guide to Cars website that she once dreamed of being either a spy for the CIA or a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Now she gets to oversee an exciting and authentic sports-car rite of passage—one that offers an incredible firsthand experience for both new Porsche owners and drivers, and those with more laps under their belts.

The test track, recently expanded to roughly double its overall length (1.6 miles), immerses Porsche enthusiasts in the world of supercars. The Porsche HQ also sends a clear message to anyone who hasn’t visited Georgia in a long time: You’re in one of the new capitals of the automotive industry.

A new nexus for the auto industry

For the last two decades, Georgia has watched as its formerly fading fortunes in the car world have made a 180-degree turn. In the early 2000s, the state lost major auto manufacturing complexes and thousands of jobs when Ford left Hapeville and General Motors closed its Doraville assembly complex. Since then—since 2020, in fact—the state has more than made up for those losses. In the past few years, Georgia has attracted roughly $21 billion in investment from the auto industry, across the entire spectrum of the business.

Corporations now calling Georgia home include everyone from high-end tiremaker Pirelli to automakers Porsche and Mercedes-Benz to companies that engineer or build everything from automotive components to autos themselves, including Panasonic and Kia. The total job gain? More than 26,700 positions, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD). In 2022 alone, the state saw a 675 percent increase in auto industry investment, according to GDEcD deputy commissioner Kristi Brigman.

“Big-ticket manufacturing accounts for much of that gain,” Brigman says. She also explains that the auto industry’s complexity and depth means a host of smaller companies have joined in the statewide expansion—from Aurubis’s 200-employee-workforce metal recycling facility near Augusta to the 70 jobs created by e-mobility charging company Heliox, which chose Georgia as its North American headquarters in 2021.

With 1,200 miles of highway and 5,000 miles of rail lines, not to mention deep-port and hub-airport access and distinct cultural assets—the state’s titanic film and TV industry among them—Georgia has been a beacon to many automotive companies that need a particular mix of a business-friendly climate, reliable infrastructure, and a skilled workforce.

On that front, the state’s Georgia Quick Start factors in as a major asset. “No other state provides a customized workforce training program with the range of capabilities and record of success that Quick Start has,” says Executive Director Rodger Brown.

The program is an important distinction in a region where auto-industry technical skills are less than a generation old. In cooperation with the Technical College System of Georgia, Quick Start provides training to people whose skills become a critical piece of the industry puzzle. Often, they’re working in the auto industry and assembling vehicles for the first time in their lives.

Making it work: from Mercedes to Kia

Workforce is a critical concern for some of the auto and auto-related companies that have settled in Georgia. For one company, the explosive growth of the Atlanta metropolitan area proved to be the star attraction. In 2015, Mercedes-Benz announced that it would leave its longtime headquarters in northern New Jersey and relocate to the Atlanta area. After months of site selections and visits by executives, the company chose Sandy Springs and built its headquarters on the former Barfield Road.

Now dubbed Mercedes-Benz Drive, the complex is home to a 200,000-square-foot building on a 12-acre campus, designed as much for collaboration between employees as it is for environmental concerns. The building meets LEED Silver certification and sits near major rail and trail connections within easy distance of the Atlanta Perimeter. As part of their relocation, Mercedes planted nearly 800 trees to restore the canopy around the property. At the facility’s opening ceremony, then-Governor Nathan Deal said, “It’s hard to top the seal of approval from the world to have Mercedes-Benz choose Georgia as its headquarters.”

About 90 minutes southwest, near the Georgia-Alabama state line, another of the world’s biggest auto companies assembles hundreds of thousands of vehicles each year. Kia’s massive assembly plant in West Point, Georgia, builds everything from the award-winning Telluride three-row SUV to the midsize Sorento, along with the popular K5 sedan. Working around the clock on three shifts, the assembly plant builds nearly 40 percent of the vehicles Kia sells in the U.S.

Back in the early 2000s, Kia also selected Georgia from the ranks of competing states with one key factor in mind: workforce. “The workforce development resources of the Technical College System of Georgia and Quick Start present the ability for customized solutions for almost any type of company,” says Stuart Countess, president and CEO of Kia Georgia Inc.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Countess says. The community of West Point had a strong work ethic thanks to the region’s hundred years of experience in the textile industry, “but no one had worked in an advanced manufacturing facility,” he says. That’s changed rapidly. The company has launched several new vehicles on the same assembly lines and even turned some of its space into an ad-hoc face-shield assembly line during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, some 17 years after the project began, Kia Georgia has created more than 14,000 jobs at its facility and surrounding suppliers, and several of its vehicles have won awards from J.D. Power and Associates for quality and customer satisfaction. This happened, Countess says, directly because of the people who stream through the
assembly plant’s doors every day.

Georgia: an electric-vehicle capital

In short order, Georgia has emerged as one of the hubs of the new EV industry. In the past five years, billions in investments have ensured the state will be at the forefront of the coming automotive revolution. In 2018, for example, SK Battery America announced plans to build a battery-pack factory in Jackson County. Five years later, it has built a second plant and now supplies batteries for the Ford F-150 Lightning electric truck as well as the Volkswagen ID.4 electric crossover SUV. Another SK plant will soon rise in Bartow County, where it will supply the batteries for future Hyundai and Kia electric vehicles, and create another 3,500 jobs.

“Electric vehicles reduce carbon dioxide pollution,” says auto reporter and analyst John Voelcker. But they’re also superior in how they drive. “They are smoother, quieter, and calmer to drive than any car with a combustion engine . . . they’re simply better vehicles than comparable gasoline models.”

More electric vehicles and batteries will come from a site that has only recently broken ground near Savannah, in Bryan County. There, Hyundai and Kia have begun to build an assembly plant that will eventually be capable of assembling 500,000 vehicles a year. The first vehicles to come from the 2,923-acre, $5.54 billion factory should arrive in 2025; they’re expected to be three-row electric SUVs outfitted with more than 400 horsepower, seating for seven people, and DC fast-charging that can recharge their batteries nearly full in less than an hour. Suppliers that will locate near the plant will spend another $1 billion in the region.

Not to be outdone, start-up electric-truck maker Rivian sees its new Georgia plant as the biggest piece of its future product plan. Currently building R1T and R1S utility vehicles in Illinois, Rivian committed in late 2021 to building its second U.S. plant in Stanton Springs, about 45 miles east of Atlanta. Rivian’s expansion in Georgia will give it the ability to build up to 400,000 vehicles each year; its $5 billion investment will turn the
nearly 2,000-acre Stanton Springs parcel into a facility that will assemble its midsize R2 lineup of vehicles and eventually employ up to 7,500 people.

What’s next for Georgia’s auto industry?

Electric cars were long seen as the future of the industry. Now that they’ve arrived, the industry—and the companies that call Georgia home—are looking to see what’s next. The industry needs cutting-edge technology and the people to create it, and it also needs the right place to test it. That’s why the state has created the Electric Mobility and Innovation Alliance (EMIA), which brings together utility companies, nonprofits, and government and auto industry stakeholders to cooperate and create the right environment for electric-vehicle-related investment.

It’s also why it has partnered with the Georgia Department of Transportation to develop “The Ray,” an 18-mile stretch of I-85 where new technologies such as self-driving cars can be tested. The road to producing reliable, safe, self-driving features sets a very high bar, and projects such as The Ray will be critical in terms of technology and safety requirements as the industry works toward that long-term goal.

Before self-driving cars become reality, there’s more work to be done on the ground: attracting more investment, preparing more of the workforce, and turning over the first buckets of red dirt. The state has already prepared for the next company hunting for a new home, says Brigman, as she points to a spot on the map south of Macon, on the I-75 corridor, that’s ripe for development.

“It’s a fantastic piece of property,” Brigman said of the 1,100-acre parcel located in Peach County. Served by rail, adjacent to Highway 96, and just a 90-minute drive from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the site “checks a lot of boxes” in terms of access and logistics. “It’s a strong site,” she says, “and we’re excited to see what it can be in time.”