What Happened When a German Car Factory Went All Electric

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, 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.

Electric vehicles have far fewer parts than gasoline cars — no radiators, exhaust pipes, fuel tanks, fan belts or complicated gearboxes. As a result, many autoworkers, executives and politicians have hypothesized that such cars would require fewer workers, leading to mass unemployment in factory towns and cities worldwide.

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