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Antihero to zero: VW rises from ‘dieselgate’ to lead charge on electric vehicles | Volkswagen (VW)

Two bronze statues that guard the doorway to Zwickau practice station in Saxony inform the story of Germany’s wrestle to wean itself off fossil fuels.

A crouching miner cradles a lamp in a nod to the lignite, a very soiled type of coal, that was dug from this a part of former East Germany, fuelling its factories and energy stations. His companion, an engineer, represents the automotive trade that dominates Germany’s industrial heartland.

However whereas mining for coal is on the best way out, the nation’s influential automotive trade, which employs greater than 830,000 individuals, is heading in a brand new course. Volkswagen’s monumental plant on the outskirts of the medieval city is the primary within the German carmaker’s empire to absolutely embrace the longer term.

Thomas Knabel, the representative of the IG Metall trade union in Zwickau.
Thomas Knabel, the consultant of the IG Metall commerce union in Zwickau. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

The final inside combustion engine (ICE) automotive, a VW Golf property, rolled off the road right here in June 2020, as Zwickau grew to become the primary manufacturing facility belonging to a quantity automotive producer to absolutely swap from constructing petrol- and diesel-guzzling vehicles to these powered by lithium-ion batteries.

Six years after the humiliation of its world emissions scandal, the world’s largest carmaker by output is main the charge for Germany’s carmakers, as they appear to finish their prolonged and profitable love affair with hydrocarbons by going electric.

Dieselgate in 2015 – the place VW was discovered to have put in so-called defeat gadgets in its vehicles to cheat emissions exams – left an indelible mark on the corporate. It could even have pushed VW extra shortly to a lower-emission technique than lots of its home and worldwide rivals, and spurred robust new authorities guidelines. The European Union intends to end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035.

“We began this 4, 5 years in the past once we had the dialogue, what are the following steps for Volkswagen’s technique, the place are we going as an organization with our prospects,” recalled Andreas Walingen, Volkswagen’s chief technique officer.

“We will be open on this additionally; the diesel disaster actually gave us, [a sense of] take into consideration your self, what’s your function,” Walingen mentioned.

Dr Stefan Loth, chairman of Volkswagen Saxony’s management board.
Dr Stefan Loth, chairman of Volkswagen Saxony’s administration board. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

“We sat collectively and mentioned we actually have to make a change, we’ve got to go for zero”.

VW’s wager on electric prompted a €1.2bn (£1bn) funding within the Zwickau plant – out of €35bn the agency is spending on electrification – and a two-year transformation the place 85% of the positioning was transformed to produce solely electric vehicles.

Now 5 all-electric fashions from three of the group’s manufacturers – VW, Audi and Seat Cupra – are already being produced, and might be joined quickly by a sixth, the VW ID.5, with the purpose of reaching 300,000 vehicles a 12 months from 2022.

“It’s working significantly better than anticipated, as a result of the market desires electric vehicles, that’s the distinction,” mentioned Dr Stefan Loth, chairman of Volkswagen Saxony’s administration board.

“In 2017, not all people thought it was the precise resolution, however they had been anxious in case one thing goes unsuitable and no one buys these electric vehicles, and we’ve got a plant with little output.”

The VW plant in Zwickau, Saxony, where since mid-2020, only electric cars have been produced.
The VW plant in Zwickau, Saxony, the place since mid-2020, solely electric vehicles have been produced. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

VW now can’t construct e-vehicles quick sufficient. Present issues are all about provide fairly than demand, due to the continued world scarcity of semiconductors utilized in every thing from controlling automotive batteries to seats.

Initially, an enormous concern of Zwickau’s 8,500-strong workforce was whether or not anybody would need to purchase electric vehicles, in addition to what greater ranges of automation would imply for jobs.

“There was concern amongst younger and previous. The identical questions saved developing. Will they nonetheless want me, what’s going to occur to my job,” mentioned Maik Möckel, 39, head of meeting corridor 6, a cavernous house the scale of 11 soccer pitches.

Maik Möckel, head of assembly hall 6, where the VW ID.4 and Audi Q4 is built.
Maik Möckel, head of meeting corridor 6, the place the VW ID.4 and Audi This fall is constructed. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

The conversion left few areas untouched. Patches of manufacturing facility flooring had to be bolstered with metal to stand up to 2 tonne electric vehicles, together with their 500kg lithium-ion batteries.

The conversion introduced in additional robots, however the carmaker has assured it can keep present employment ranges in Zwickau till 2029.

It was a “lengthy highway” to get the employees on board with the plant’s transformation, mentioned Jens Rothe, head of the highly effective works council on the plant, a German company custom the place elected employees characterize their fellow staff to administration and play a job in company decision-making.

“I’ve at all times mentioned we’re the icebreaker for the entire agency,” Rothe mentioned.

It’s the second vital transformation on the web site owned by VW since 1990 – the long-lasting Trabants had been as soon as constructed right here.

a Trabant car
The Zwickau plant as soon as constructed the much-maligned, however iconic Trabant. VW took over the manufacturing facility in 1990 after reunification. {Photograph}: Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Photographs

The swap to electric additionally introduced Audi manufacturing again to the city the place the model was established in 1910.

VW’s funding in electrification has put it forward of lots of its rivals, in accordance to Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based unbiased automotive analyst. “VW are lobbying the EU and German authorities to say the transition ought to happen faster,” he mentioned.

“They’re fairly joyful to destroy the competitors, and if these CO2 laws targets get moved ahead. VW are method on goal to meet their CO2 laws and different automotive producers have now obtained to pace up.”

VW has already sold its electric vehicle platform to Ford underneath licence, permitting the US carmaker to construct electric vehicles in Cologne for the European market.

The vast Hall 2, body shop of the VW plant.
The huge Corridor 2, physique store of the VW plant. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

But not all German carmakers are shifting on the identical tempo, and the fast shift away from hydrocarbons led by VW has provoked concern in regards to the affect on Germany’s export-led economic system – and the potential for mass job losses. The top of Mercedes-owner Daimler has called for an “honest conversation” in regards to the affect of electrification on jobs.

In the meantime, VW’s chief govt Herbert Diess has just lately felt the heat from the works council at the company’s Wolfsburg headquarters over the way it plans to revamp the positioning, because it appears to be like to enhance productiveness amid the semiconductor scarcity.

The corporate can be going through competitors on its house turf from US electric carmaker Tesla, which is constructing a manufacturing facility exterior Berlin, the place it intends to create 10,000 jobs and produce 500,000 vehicles a 12 months at its gigafactory, which can embrace the world’s largest battery plant.

“Particularly in Germany you’ve obtained specialist firms which have been champions of trade, specialising in specialist elements for the inner combustion engine,” Schmidt mentioned. “In fact there are going to be job losses, however what usually will get missed is there are going to be new job alternatives created as effectively.”

Thomas Knabel, the consultant of the IG Metall metalworkers’ commerce union in Zwickau, mentioned they confronted difficulties in getting the area’s suppliers to take electrification critically. “Plenty of auto suppliers requested whether or not it will actually occur. But it surely was clear to us that it will, and can be an enormous technique of change,” he mentioned.

Cars roll off the line at assembly hall 6.
Automobiles roll off the road at meeting corridor 6. {Photograph}: Nicole Krueger/The Guardian

At a nationwide degree, carmakers and the remainder of German trade are ready to see what the presence of the Greens – together with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Free Democrats – within the new coalition authorities, will imply for environmental coverage and its affect on trade.

The three events are in talks to type Germany’s subsequent authorities, and amongst their challenges might be lowering use of fossil fuels – together with the reliance on coal for a quarter of the country’s electricity production needs – whereas considerably rising the nation’s electric car charging community.

In Zwickau’s medieval sq., locals are simply grateful that the city’s largest employer has been given a brand new lease of life. “We now have to be happy they rebuilt the manufacturing facility. It’s positively an awesome win for Zwickau, and the entire area income from having it right here,” mentioned Hanfried Trültzsch. However at 78, he’s too previous to get an electric car himself, laughed his spouse, Hannelore. “At our age we don’t want to get an electric car, I’m proud of my Mercedes.”

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