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This article is part of theKilling the Combustion Engine particular report, offered by SQM.
STUTTGART, Germany — Germany’s industrial soul is preserved on the highest flooring of a glass and steel field building at the gates of Porsche headquarters.
Visitors stand at the prime of a protracted collection of white ramps. Bathed in fluorescent light surrounded by audio system, they close their eyes and press a button to experience what is thought asLaufkultur, the baritone growl of what is arguably Germany’s greatest invention: the interior combustion engine.
Before long, this museum to Germany’s industrial glory could be all that’s left of a convention that started in this provincial capital greater than a century ago.
Regulators within the European Union and components of the United States are closing in on guidelines that may replace the valves, pistons and exhausts that make a Porsche a Porsche with battery cells and lines of software program code. But not like with the combustion engine, those are technologies the place Germany’s auto business isn’t a world-beating pacesetter, but an also-ran, trailing Silicon Valley’s Tesla and a bunch of competing Chinese carmakers now heading for Europe. With the age of the driverless automobile fast approaching, opponents from the tech world, together with the likes of Apple, are lurking in the shadows.
Since the dawn of the car, Germany’s prowess in producing the combustion engine set German-made vehicles apart from the competitors; in current many years, the engine has also been one of the solely major car components still produced inside the country.
But because the trade goes electric, that leadership position becomes as irrelevant as the abilities of an Italian grasp tailor within the face of quick trend mass-produced in abroad factories. In the fashionable age of mobility, it’s the battery and software program that gives the added worth, not the engine.
The race to guide the electric revolution isn’t over, however it’s already far from clear if the likes of Mercedes, Volkswagen, BMW, Bosch — or certainly Porsche — will have the flexibility to hold pace. For the first time within the industry’s history, the prospect of Germany’s most storied manufacturers suffering the fate of faded American powerhouses like Pontiac or Oldsmobile not looks as if an impossibility.
German carmakers are racing to adapt, with Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen all committing to rapid electrification packages and multi-billion battery investment offers. But their capability to manage the transition is much from a sure factor. The latest instance — a mega IPO for a slice of Porsche shares later this month to raise funds for investments in e-mobility and software by its parent company VW — comes simply as the carmaker’s new management reconsiders its single-minded electric push.
The story of how Germany’s automobile industry ended up right here is considered one of lost opportunity, resistance to vary and obsession with previous engineering triumphs. Even because the pride of Germany’s auto heritage helped drive innovation for many years, it fired another impulse — hubris.
For years, German engineers and CEOs talked down the prospects of alternate options to the engine, focusing instead on fine-tuning their heritage expertise. While that strategy kept report profits flowing, the industry’s short-sightedness additionally sowed the seeds for its looming crisis.
What’s at stake is not only the method forward for Germany’s most prized invention — however the stability of the country’s economy and a sector that is certainly one of Europe’s largest employers.
Illustration by Sam Taylor for POLITICOCautionary Tales
Germany’s car executives know all about fallen champions.
VW, despite the Dieselgate emissions-cheating scandal and rampant competition, remains one of the largest carmakers in the world. While it may be difficult to think about the corporate may in the future disappear, historical past is affected by examples of once-dominant brands that swiftly fell into irrelevance.
From railroads to steamships, shopper technology and native newspapers — innovation disrupts all kinds of industries. It isn’t unimaginable that the Porsche 911, which is owned by the VW Group, could one day go the way of the steam engine.
Executives from all three of Germany’s main carmakers have at one time or another within the final decade sought out academics to teach them in regards to the perils of transformation.
But even when company bosses can spot the hazards, it might possibly nonetheless be difficult for them to transition in time. Just ask the maker of Nokia’s 3210 cell phone, a as soon as dominant piece of shopper tech made close to irrelevant by the arrival of Apple’s iPhone.
“Nokia might be an excellent example of how such a change can take place,” Herbert Diess, who stepped down as VW’s CEO last month, stated again in 2020. “If you are not fast enough, you received’t survive.”
When corporations begin to fail, they first do so internally — properly earlier than the competition delivers the killer blow. The drawback at Nokia wasn’t just the appearance of the smartphone. It additionally was its personal administration’s failure to suppose forward, counting on income from its present merchandise and making it too complex for people to try new things, all of which made the Finnish big complacent.
“Apple was blowing on a house of playing cards,” mentioned Yves Doz, a professor of strategic administration at French enterprise college INSEAD, who wrote a e-book on Nokia’s decline. “It wasn’t that they didn’t see the change coming, it was that they have been paralyzed in the face of it.”
German carmakers face the same problem, he said, in that they know they should make the transformation to extra connected, cleaner cars, however they’re grappling with how to do it in apply given they sit atop an 800,000-strong national workforce built around structures that produce and deliver petrol and diesel engines.
“One of the largest limitations to vary is nostalgia,” said Doz. “It works in political phrases but in addition in company terms too … Carmaking is such a giant part of the German industrial fabric.”
For the engineers and business-school graduates at the prime of BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes, the difficulty started within the Nineties when rivals in Asia were already creating different applied sciences that could cut back automotive emissions.
“The Asian companies have extra of a long-term method,” stated one business executive who used to work at a German carmaker. “That’s why Toyota was investing for 15 years in hybrid fashions before that paid off and so they made a killing [with the Prius]. The Germans simply requested, Why should they cease earning money on combustion engines?”
The answer to that query is regulators, who began to introduce emission requirements to curb the environmental impression of a rising world automotive fleet. But even then, rather than develop applied sciences that could ship zero emissions, Germany’s car industry instead centered on diesel and constructing small vehicles that would reduce their general fleet emission averages.
In 2008, Daimler, now Mercedes-Benz, invested $50 million in Tesla to safe technology it might use to keep away from having to develop clean automobiles itself. But in accordance with Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, the company’s interest in the technology wasn’t deeply rooted.
“They needed some sustainable power cars to make the regulators happy,” Musk advised interviewers earlier this 12 months. “At the time, it was what’s the least amount of cash we can spend to get the regulator monkeys off our again … Daimler was not prepared to place, at the moment, a big guess of electric vehicles.”
Remarkably, BMW launched an all-electric model, the i3, solely in 2013. And in the subsequent yr, Daimler offered its stake in Tesla for $780 million. The business had not but thought of that e-mobility could be a sustainable trade worthy of great funding.
“The Germans did not have the stamina to abdomen the loss-making course of,” stated one govt.
That strategic selection has performed out badly. In 2021, Tesla offered the most all-electric vehicles of any brand in Germany with its Model 3, beating the native competitors palms down even earlier than it opened a model new automotive plant within the forests east of Berlin.
It took one of many world’s largest-ever company scandals for the Germans to begin to clear up their act, albeit slowly.
For many years, the German auto industry’s response to rising considerations about climate change had been incremental innovations in engine know-how, with diesel vehicles pitched as the most effective chance to scale back CO2 emissions. Confidence in German engineering persuaded the business that it could handle the coming transition by hitting ever-stiffer emission targets.
VW, underneath its CEO Ferdinand Piëch, a grandson of Porsche’s founder and an engineer obsessed with optimizing the internal combustion engine, led the industry’s cost to diesel. VW’s “Clean Diesel” campaign turned a rallying cry for the whole German business, helping push the know-how into skeptical markets such as the U.S.
Even then-Chancellor Angela Merkel took up the diesel cause, arguing that the effectivity of gasoline outweighed considerations over the damaging particles it released into the air. The technique labored. Germany’s diesel automobiles weren’t simply selling at residence, however around the world.
Then in 2015, catastrophe hit. It turned out that VW had cheated on its emission methods, using software to make the engines seem cleaner than they were. The subsequent scandal concerned around 11 million autos, and the carmaker was forced to pay upward of €30 billion in settlements and compensation to motorists and governments all over the world.
“Essentially VW destroyed diesel for everybody,” stated Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based analyst.
Dieselgate, because the scandal became known, soon engulfed other carmakers, exposing malpractice not just inside Volkswagen engineering labs but across the whole business. It additionally critically undermined the industry’s heft in political talks amid fierce dialogue over endemic ranges of particulate air pollution in German cities caused by noxious diesel fumes.
“The errors, particularly Dieselgate, made it very tough for political leaders to trust us after which to be seen with leaders of the industry,” mentioned Matthias Wissmann, a former transport minister in the 1990s who then spent a decade as the German business’s chief lobbyist till 2018.
The scandal also took its toll on German influence in Brussels. In 2013, Merkel was in a place to thwart EU efforts to set stringent 2020 automobile fuel effectivity requirements by arguing it will negatively impression Germany’s flagship business. Arguments like that one received far less traction in the newest rounds of negotiations over far-tougher requirements for 2025 and 2030 — or in the current debate over ending gross sales of latest gasoline and diesel automobiles from 2035.
By 2019, the German chancellor was warning that Germany’s majors had fallen behind in what was changing into the trade standard for clear car technology.
“The fact that we in Germany, for example, but in addition in Europe, aren’t capable of this very day to produce battery cells ourselves is actually a major drawback for Europe’s future as a automotive manufacturing base,” Merkel informed an audience at that year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.
If there’s one place exposed to the ravages of the approaching electrical transition, it’s Stuttgart, Germany’s motor city.
Walk via town and also you’re never too removed from Mercedes’ three-pointed star, the crest of Porsche or purple Bosch lettering on the aspect of an office complicated.
Ravaged by World War II, this city of 600,000 wrapped in the hills of the Neckar Valley was rebuilt for motorists in the postwar era. The capital of Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany’s wealthiest states, Stuttgart is bisected by multi-lane highways and hillside avenues offering views back throughout the cityscape. Downtown, the Motor Presse Stuttgart media home remains to be illuminated by night time, and every little thing from the Swabian city’s sports activities teams to its stadium and live performance venues are sponsored by car industry patrons.
The city’s trains and trams are filled with staff heading to suburban automobile crops in satellite cities or suburbs such as Sindelfingen, Untertürkheim or Porsche’s plant at Zuffenhausen the place manufacturing unit towers dominate the skyline.
“Stuttgart, and Baden-Württemberg, are more dependent on the transformation of the automotive industry than almost some other region or state,” stated Nicole Hoffmeister-Kraut, the region’s economy minister.
It was here within the late 1800s that a primitive version of the combustion engine was first invented, and since then the automotive trade has been good to its hometown, accounting at present for more than half of all manufacturing regionally. Some 120,000 folks across the metropolis are immediately employed by the auto industry, stated Hoffmeister-Kraut.
The city can be residence to many element corporations that are not household names like Mahle, Eberspächer, Mann+Hummel and Vector Informatik, as well as greater than four hundred smaller firms supplying them with elements and providers — all of which are at risk in a shift to EVs.
While bigger suppliers such as Bosch have already pivoted to battery technology, software and microchips, many others haven’t. “Especially in the Stuttgart area, there are numerous suppliers who have stayed with the combustion engine,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor at the Center Automotive Research in Duisburg. “Those had been real misjudgments.”
The danger is within the complexity of the combustion engine and the relative simplicity of the battery-powered motor, which requires many fewer components and needs a lot much less upkeep. A government examine says the electrification shift could kill up to 31,000 of the city’s jobs by 2030, even when accounting for model spanking new ones created by clean mobility industries.
While Stuttgart’s carmakers are trying to go electrical — Porsche has pledged that 80 p.c of its gross sales might be electric by 2030, and Mercedes plans to do the identical wherever it’s attainable — ditching the engine sucks jobs out of Stuttgart and sends them elsewhere.
While plans are afoot to package batteries in Stuttgart and build a restricted number of cells at Mercedes’ sprawling Untertürkheim site, the majority of the company’s cells will come from Chinese producers setting up shop in other elements of Germany or elsewhere in Europe. The Chinese battery producer CATL is constructing a website close to the German city of Erfurt and another in Hungary, whereas Svolt, primarily based in Changzhou, is building one battery factory in the Saarland and another exterior Berlin. BMW has touted a new battery design that aims at boosting vary and efficiency, but it will be Chinese companies that produce them in Europe.
“Stuttgart is no longer a secure haven for the German auto business,” mentioned one carmaker executive talking on situation of anonymity. “The glory days shall be over sooner rather than later.”
Not saying goodbye
Complicating efforts to adapt is a reluctance in Germany to utterly minimize ties with the combustion engine.
“Anyone can construct an electric car, the internal combustion engine is high culture,” Ulf Poschardt, the editor-in-chief of the German every day Welt, wrote in June, assailing the EU’s efforts to kill the engine. (Welt is owned by Axel Springer, which also owns POLITICO.)
That emotional connection to the oil-greased engine runs deep in the ranks of each German carmaker, the place generations of engineers have identified nothing else. For instance, when in-house engineers at Mercedes were asked a number of years in the past to provide a hybrid coupé running on a four-cylinder engine alongside an electrical motor, quite than a powerful eight-cylinder engine, some left the room in protest.
“Losing half of the cylinders, that was hard for the petrolheads,” said a former engineer who recounted the story.
Parts of the business, cautious of the influence on jobs and their competitive edge, argue that the trade can again innovate its way out of bother and save the know-how that has made it distinct.
As the European Union zeroes in on legislation that may mandate a zero-emissions normal by 2035, successfully banning gross sales of engine-installed automobiles, Germany is arguing that there’ll nonetheless be a world marketplace for combustion engines well into the 2040s.
The reply it’s proposing is artificial fuels — manufactured using captured CO2 and hydrogen. The adoption of those so-called e-fuels may keep combustion engines working with out fossil fuels — in theory with out producing further emissions. Yet they’re expensive to produce and do not exist on a industrial scale at present.
As the final draft of the engine-ban works its way through the Brussels equipment, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner has tried to demand a carve-out for e-fuels. “I know that Germany might be a number one market for electrical expertise,” Lindner advised POLITICO. “On the opposite hand, I know that with synthetic fuels, which is able to one day be far more economical than at present, inner combustion engines shall be more climate-friendly than they’re right now.”
The problem is that Germany is the one EU nation seriously pushing e-fuels as a reputable choice.
The pressure between the industry’s previous and the competing visions for its future was on show one late August evening, as VW’s outgoing CEO Diess gathered with a detailed group of pals and colleagues on the terrace of the Mondo Italiano restaurant on the edge of the corporate’s sprawling Wolfsburg factory headquarters.
His time on the prime, he conceded, hadn’t been simple, in accordance with one of many attendees. “What people on the outside don’t perceive is how complicated it’s with us,” he stated, referring to the occasions that had led to his ouster.
Under Diess, VW had pledged to spend much of the €73 billion investment in future applied sciences on EVs by 2025 and develop six battery vegetation in Europe to provide bespoke models for its vehicles. But in spearheading the transition, he had also roiled labor unions together with his insistence that VW wanted to be extra agile and shed jobs faster.
In quick, he needed VW — an organization with legacy costs and around 660,000 staff worldwide — to behave extra like Tesla, a company launched in 2003 not 1937, and with a fraction of its workforce.
Diess’ battle with the unions had come to a head over the earlier yr, and this summer — at the identical time as EU legislators ready to seal the deal on an engine ban — he was lastly proven the door. In his place, the company’s shareholders put in Oliver Blume, until then the CEO of group unit Porsche.
Blume is distinctive for 2 things. As head of Porsche, he was the one top German car executive to lobby brazenly in favor of e-fuels. He’s additionally close to Lindner, so much in order that the two have been embroiled in a scandal over company access to politicians — by which Blume is alleged to have lobbied the finance minister for the inclusion of e-fuels in the German government program. On Blume’s first day in the top job at VW, the company announced plans to shift its strategy from Diess’ single-minded focus on electric vehicles, to growing both batteries and e-fuels as two routes to go green.
The apparent change of tack on the very top of Germany’s largest automotive company is the clearest indication yet that — regardless of stress from the EU, the huge new investments and the looming, Nokia-sized risks — the German automotive trade isn’t but totally offered on the electrical future.
“Nobody desires to rejoice a funeral just yet for the combustion engine,” mentioned Jens Gieseke, a German conservative MEP who has been pushing e-fuels as part of the EU’s engine-ban legislation.
The hazard, for the business, is that the funeral it is going to be attending instead shall be its own.
Matthew Karnitschnig and Laurenz Gehrke contributed reporting to this text.
This article is part of theKilling the Combustion Engine special report, offered by SQM and was produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors.Learn moreabout editorial content presented by exterior advertisers.
CORRECTION: This story has been up to date to appropriate the location of the INSEAD enterprise faculty. It is based in France.