What happened when a German car factory went all electric

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GERMANY: Zwickau, a city in Germany’s east, may not be as famous as Detroit, but its economy has revolved around internal combustion engines since August Horch established Audi here at the beginning of the 20th century.

So when Volkswagen announced in 2018 that it would convert its Zwickau factory, the largest private employer in the area, to manufacture nothing but electric vehicles (EVs), it was a big deal.

“A lot of people were skeptical,” said Michael Fuchs, who has worked at the factory for more than a quarter century. They wondered, “What’s going to happen?” he said.

Volkswagen shut down assembly lines churning out its popular Golf hatchbacks and converted the factory, which has its own exit on the autobahn, to make six electric models. The remodeled plant can produce a car a minute, shipping them out by train.

It was a rare case of a major car plant’s switching completely from internal combustion to battery power, making Zwickau a case study for a big question confronting the auto industry.

Zwickau, where over 10,000 people work for Volkswagen and tens of thousands more for suppliers, appears to have avoided those dire consequences. Employment hasn’t fallen off a cliff, and suppliers of combustion vehicle parts haven’t been forced into bankruptcy en masse. Its experience offers some hopeful lessons for other places that depend on the auto industry.

Yet people in Zwickau, with its immaculate but sleepy downtown, are still uneasy.

One big change already visible in Germany and the rest of Europe is the fast growth of young Chinese electric carmakers like BYD and SAIC, which are increasingly luring customers away from established rivals like Volkswagen, the world’s second-largest automaker after Toyota.

“The question is: How much will mobility change overall?” said Thomas Knabel, who leads the Zwickau local of IG Metall, the union that represents Volkswagen workers. “In the future, will Volkswagen still be present?” Max Jankowsky, president of the regional Chamber of Commerce, said he was disappointed that he hadn’t seen any Volkswagens during a recent trip to Dubai. “It was just Teslas, Teslas, Teslas,” said Jankowsky, who is also the president of a company that makes cast iron parts for Volkswagen suppliers and other manufacturers.

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2024-04-15 01:30:02

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