Two bronze statues guarding the entrance to the Zwickau train station in Saxony tell the story of Germany’s struggle to stop burning fossil fuels.
A crouching miner holds a lantern in recognition of lignite, a particularly dirty form of coal, which was mined from this part of former East Germany, which powers its factories and power plants. His partner, an engineer, represents the automotive industry that dominates the industrial heartland of Germany.
But while coal mining is disappearing, the country’s influential auto industry, which employs more than 830,000 people, is heading in a new direction. The massive Volkswagen plant on the outskirts of the medieval city is the first in the German automaker’s empire to fully embrace the future.
The latest internal combustion engine (ICE) car, a VW Golf property, rolled off the line here in June 2020, when Zwickau became the first factory owned by a volume automaker to completely change build. from cars that consume gasoline and diesel to those powered by lithium-ion batteries.
Six years after the humiliation of its global emissions scandal, the world’s largest automaker by production is leading the charge on Germany’s automakers, who seek to end their long and lucrative love affair with hydrocarbons going electric.
Dieselgate in 2015, where VW was found to have installed so-called deactivation devices in its cars to cheat emissions tests, left an indelible mark on the company. It may also have pushed VW toward a low-emissions strategy faster than many of its national and international rivals, and spurred tough new government rules. The European Union intends to end the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035.
“We started this four or five years ago when we had the discussion about what the next steps are for Volkswagen’s strategy, where we are going as a company with our customers,” recalled Andreas Walingen, Volkswagen’s chief strategy officer.
“We can also be open to this; the diesel crisis really gave us, [a sense of] think about yourself, what is your purpose, “said Walingen.
“We sat down together and said that we really have to make a change, we have to go for zero.”
VW’s bid for electricity sparked a € 1.2 billion (£ 1 billion) investment in the Zwickau plant, out of the € 35 billion the company is spending on electrification, and a two-year transformation in the that 85% of the site was converted to exclusively produce electric cars.
Five fully electric models are now in production from three of the group’s brands: VW, Audi and Seat Cupra, with a sixth to join soon. the VW ID.5, with the goal of reaching 300,000 vehicles per year from 2022.
“It is working much better than expected, because the market wants electric vehicles, that is the difference,” said Dr. Stefan Loth, Chairman of the Board of Management of Volkswagen Saxony.
“In 2017, not everyone thought it was the right decision, but they were anxious if something went wrong and nobody bought these electric vehicles, and we have a plant with little production.”
VW can’t build electric vehicles fast enough now. Today’s problems are about supply rather than demand, due to the current global shortage of semiconductors that are used in everything from controlling car batteries to seats.
Initially, a big concern of Zwickau’s 8,500-person workforce was whether anyone would want to buy electric vehicles, as well as what higher levels of automation would mean for jobs.
“There was fear between young and old. The same questions kept coming up. Will they still need me? What will happen to my job? “Said Maik Möckel, 39, head of Assembly Hall 6, a cavernous space the size of 11 football fields.
The conversion left few areas intact. The factory floor patches had to be reinforced with steel to support 2-ton electric vehicles, including their 500-kg lithium-ion batteries.
The conversion brought in more robots, but the automaker has guaranteed it will maintain current employment levels in Zwickau until 2029.
It was a “long road” to get workers involved in the plant’s transformation, said Jens Rothe, head of the powerful works council at the plant, a German corporate tradition in which elected workers represent their co-workers before the direction and play a role in corporate decision-making.
“I’ve always said that we are the icebreaker of the entire company,” said Rothe.
It’s the second significant transformation to the VW-owned site since 1990 – the iconic Trabants were once built here.
The switch to electric also brought Audi production back to the city where the brand was established in 1910.
VW’s investment in electrification has put it ahead of many of its rivals, according to Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based independent auto analyst. “VW is putting pressure on the EU and the German government to say that the transition should happen faster,” he said.
“They are very happy to destroy the competition, and if these objectives of the legislation on CO2 advance. VW is well on track to comply with its CO2 legislation and other automakers must now accelerate. “
VW already has sold its electric vehicle platform to Ford under license, allowing the American automaker to build electric cars in Cologne for the European market.
However, not all German automakers are moving at the same pace, and the rapid shift away from hydrocarbons led by VW has raised concerns about the impact on the export-driven German economy and the potential for massive job losses. The boss of Daimler, owner of Mercedes, has asked for an “honest conversation” on the impact of electrification on employment.
Meanwhile, VW CEO Herbert Diess recently felt the warmth of the works council at the company headquarters in Wolfsburg on how he plans to revamp the site as he seeks to boost productivity amid the semiconductor shortage.
The company is also facing competition on its own turf from the American electric car maker Tesla, which is building a factory on the outskirts of Berlin, where it aims to create 10,000 jobs and produce 500,000 cars a year at its gigafactory, which will include the largest battery plant in the world.
“Especially in Germany there are specialized companies that have been industry champions, specializing in specialized parts for the internal combustion engine,” said Schmidt. “Of course jobs will be lost, but what is often lost is that new job opportunities will also be created.”
Thomas Knabel, the representative of the metalworkers union IG Metall in Zwickau, said they faced difficulties in getting suppliers in the region to take electrification seriously. “Many car suppliers asked if it would really happen. But we were clear that it would be and would be a great process of change, “he said.
At the national level, automakers and the rest of German industry are waiting to see what the presence of the Greens, along with the Social Democrats (SPD) and Free Democrats, in the new coalition government for environmental policy and its impact will mean. . in the industry.
The three parties are in talks to form Germany’s next government, and their challenges will include reducing the use of fossil fuels, including reliance on coal for a quarter of the country’s electricity production needs – while significantly increasing the country’s electric vehicle charging network.
In the medieval square of Zwickau, the locals are grateful that the city’s largest employer has been given a new life. “We have to be happy that they have rebuilt the factory. It is definitely a great victory for Zwickau, and the whole region benefits from having him here, ”said Hanfried Trültzsch. But at 78, he’s too old to buy an electric vehicle, laughed his wife, Hannelore. “At our age we don’t need an electric vehicle, I’m happy with my Mercedes.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism