MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.
Thousands of unemployed autoworkers in Northern California believe they may have a future building electric cars. Their hopes center around a new deal between the giant carmaker Toyota and the far smaller electric car company Tesla Motors. Central to that deal: Bringing new life to a closed Toyota plant.
NPR's Richard Gonzales reports from the Bay Area city of Fremont.
RICHARD GONZALES: For 25 years, Toyota ran a unique joint venture with General Motors called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI for short. That partnership ended when GM went bankrupt. And in April, Toyota shuttered the plant in Fremont, leaving about 4,700 workers jobless and looking for a miracle - now some of them think they have found it.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia...
GONZALES: This week, a small group of religious, community and labor leaders praised the news of a Toyota-Tesla partnership.
This is the Reverend Carol Been.
Reverend CAROL BEEN (Deputy Director, New Sanctuary Movement): And as we ask Toyota to encourage and invest in these workers once again, we give thanks in celebration for what has been. And in this anxious time, we pray for what will be, that all 4,700 workers will come back to work.
GONZALES: The news came from Toyota's President Akio Toyoda, who promised to invest $50 million in Tesla. The fledgling electric carmaker will, in turn, buy the old NUMMI plant, a facility where Toyoda himself had once worked.
Mr. AKIO TOYODA (CEO, Toyota Motor Corporation): I'm extremely happy that the DNA of car-making that the NUMMI team developed over 25 years of production there will live on in an industry for the future.
GONZALES: The impetus for the partnership came about six weeks ago when Toyoda visited Tesla CEO Elon Musk at his home in Southern California. The two men hit it off, especially after they went for a test drive in a two-seat Tesla Roadster with Toyoda at the wheel.
Mr. TOYODA: Not only was I impressed by Tesla technology, but I also felt their energy. Simply put, I felt the wind the wind of the future.
GONZALES: Toyota and Tesla will collaborate on an electric car. And at the same time, Tesla will use the NUMMI plant to build its new electric family-size sedan called the Model S, says CEO Elon Musk.
Mr. ELON MUSK (CEO, Tesla Motors): The Model S is initially only about a 20,000-vehicle production. So we're going to be occupying a little corner, but there's a lot of room for growth and in the long-term, we certainly intend to use the full capacity of NUMMI.
GONZALES: Car industry experts say the deal gives Tesla a huge lead in mass producing an electric car. And for $50 million, Toyota gets access to Tesla's power-train technology.
But Toyota may get something more: Some goodwill from the public when it really needs it, says Jeremy Anwyl, the CEO of Edmunds.com.
Mr. JEREMY ANWYL (CEO, Edmunds.com): I think they really score a lot of political points by keeping that plant going. They may not say that, but my suspicion is that's their driving motivation and I think that's a very smart move.
GONZALES: UC-Berkeley labor expert Harley Shaiken said there's tremendous potential for Toyota at a time when it's has fallen behind Nissan and Chevrolet in the electric car market.
Professor HARLEY SHAIKEN (Education and Geography, UC, Berkley): In the Fremont plant, the old Corolla line, which worked so well, is still there. That would mean a rapid transition is possible to building an electric Corolla or even a hybrid Corolla in Fremont. That could be a game-changer for the industry and certainly for jobs.
GONZALES: Tesla's CEO Elon Musk says he plans to start production of the Model S within two years and hire up to 1,000 workers in Fremont. And he said he wouldn't encourage or oppose the workers organizing a union.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Fremont, California.
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