Ford’s US battery factory partners from SK On are increasingly worried that the biggest such project in America may be a smokescreen for industrial espionage of their proprietary battery-making technology and equipment. Ford has already been inquiring about an upcoming bill that addresses EV battery IP in Korea.
Legacy US automakers like GM or Ford have vowed to surpass Tesla and become the country’s leading electric vehicle manufacturers. General Motors has pledged US$42 billion in total for the process, while Ford’s transition is even more ambitious with a $50 billion investment in EV and battery factories announced so far. It even split its operations into a legacy company called Ford Blue – for legacy ICE vehicles – and a dedicated electric car spinoff aptly named Model E.
On its quest to become the “true EV leader” in the US, Ford wants to make 600,000 electric vehicles by 2023 and set a battery production joint venture with SK On, one of Korea’s big three EV battery manufacturers. The Ford-SK partnership over battery development and manufacturing is called Blue Oval SK and will be placing orders for the new Kentucky battery plant (BOSK1) equipment as soon as this year. The second Ford battery factory, in Tennessee, is denoted as BOSK2, and Blue Oval SK has a third one in the pipeline, too.
Ford’s joint venture with the battery subsidiary of SK Innovation is the biggest single investment in made-in-USA batteries for electric vehicles, to the tune of more than US$11 billion in factories and equipment alone. For Ford, it will ensure that all of its electric cars will qualify for government subsidies going forward, while SK On gets a needed exposure to the competitive and very visible US market where currently Tesla rules supreme.
What the Koreans are increasingly worried about, reports local media, is that the Blue Oval SK partnership will be used as a smokescreen by Ford in order to learn the equipment installation and production techniques needed to start developing and manufacturing battery technologies of its own.
Ford has a history of requesting to share battery technology-related information while discussing the operation of Blue Oval SK with SK On… The industry analyzes that Ford is moving with its own battery production in mind. As the transition to electric vehicles accelerates, battery expansion and investment are continuing, the number of manpower who can skillfully prepare and operate battery lines in the field is limited. In Tennessee, where the Blue Oval SK plant will be built, a separate pilot line and facility for battery R&D will be prepared. The on-site manpower seems to be a strategy to increase the skill level through SK On and its partners.
The Korean government has designated both EV battery-making skills as well as high-nickel cathode materials as a trade secret on the national security level under the Domestic Industrial Technology Protection Act. It governs all related joint ventures with Korean firms and Ford has been inquiring about the content of a planned bill addressing Korean technology leaks.
An industry source added that despite the industrial espionage fears “you have to teach Ford employees from the equipment installation stage to work,” while they “can naturally learn the experience necessary for battery production and line operation” anyway. A battery technology-sharing demand was the reason for the breakup of Rivian and Samsung over their planned factory on US soil, and SK On is seemingly worried that Ford may try to pull off a similar maneuver, albeit in a stealthier manner.