Dirk Kosbad began working at the Volkswagen facility in Zwickau in 1990 with the task of assembling Trabant, East Germany’s iconic automobile. He now works as a shift supervisor in the same plant, looking over orange robots scurrying around the silver car frame, blasting tiny bolts of lightning here and there, and welding together the many elements that would soon encase a giant rectangular battery. Volkswagen’s transition to electric transportation begins in Zwickau.
The internal combustion engine (ICU) has had its day after more than a century of unrivaled power. The number of countries contemplating sales bans for combustion-engine vehicles is growing: Norway’s phase-out is set for 2025, with the UK following in 2030 and the European Union’s 27 member states following in 2035. The European automobile industry, which employs 3.7 million people, is caught in the center of a perfect storm. Digitization, automation, and the general public’s recognition of the gravity of the climate situation herald a revolution. Some view this as a golden opportunity. Fearful of the worst, others have begun to talk about Europe’s automotive heartlands becoming a constellation of little Detroits.
Automobile manufacturers have been compelled to invest billions of dollars in the creation of more environmentally friendly vehicles in recent years. The change has already taken place in Zwickau. Beginning in 2019, Volkswagen was able to retrain its 8,500 on-site staff and redesigned the whole production line to focus solely on electric vehicles. “We were really afraid at first,” admits Kosbad, 57. “Nobody could have predicted that it would turn out to be a success. “Everyone in this room was skeptical.” But Volkswagen’s gamble looks to have paid off: new vehicle registrations in Germany nearly doubled from 2018 to 2019 and more than tripled from 2019 to 2020. While 365,000 electric vehicles registered are a tiny fraction of Germany’s total 48 million, the development is exponential. In the first 4 months of 2021, the number of electric car registrations was three times that of the entire year of 2020.
Volkswagen, Germany’s largest automobile manufacturer, is currently only second to Tesla in worldwide electric vehicle sales. According to Kosbad, initial skepticism among Zwickau employees has given way to wary hope. Those who previously built exhaust systems are now installing wires for the battery engines, and others have retrained as high-voltage experts. Making an electric car requires fewer people, but Volkswagen found a solution to this problem by expanding production, resulting in more sales than ever before and no layoffs, at least for the time being.