Electric Cars Threaten the Heart of Germany’s Economy

on Dec31
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ÖHRINGEN, Germany — Öhringen lies deep in automaking country, homeland of Germany’s biggest industry and a source of national pride. And by most appearances, life is pretty good.

The unemployment rate in Öhringen is a mere 2.3 percent. Restaurants, nursing homes and kindergartens are begging for workers. The city government is using bulging tax receipts to build a new secondary school and a hospital.

But just outside Öhringen’s tidy old quarter, dominated by the steeple of a 15th-century stone church, there are signs that the economic upswing that has nourished this idyll is beginning to falter.

There is a gnawing feeling that something more fundamental is going on in Germany’s powerful auto industry, which employs 835,000 people, than just another economic cycle.

The growing popularity of electric vehicles could force a shift in the balance of power in the global car business that would have long-term consequences for Germany.

So far, sales of electric cars make up a small share of the overall auto market, but they are growing fast. In October, battery-powered cars and hybrids accounted for almost 10 percent of new car registrations in Europe, according to JATO, a market research firm; figures from another firm, LMC Automotive, put the share at less than 4 percent in the United States. Sales of those cars in Europe were up 40 percent from a year earlier in an otherwise stagnant market.

If the trend continues, it spells trouble for the hundreds of suppliers that make parts for internal combustion engines. The Mahle factory in Öhringen makes equipment that controls the flow of air in diesel and gasoline motors.

“There is a transition toward more electric vehicles that have far fewer components and are easier to manufacture,” Bernhard Mattes, the president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry, said in an interview in Berlin. “Therefore, we can expect less employment.”

Mr. Mattes, former head of Ford’s operations in Germany, quoted studies estimating that a shift to electric cars could cost 70,000 jobs in Germany by 2030. Some estimates are higher.

The effect of those cuts may be felt most acutely in communities like Öhringen, where the local economy revolves around small and midsize manufacturers, often serving the auto industry. Audi, Porsche and Daimler all have factories within a 40-mile radius.

Faced with flat or declining sales in their major markets, the big automakers are expected to pass much of the pain on to suppliers. The carmakers will demand lower prices and begin taking over work that they would have previously delegated to contractors.

Thilo Michler, the mayor of Öhringen, said the local economy was diverse enough to survive the closing of the Mahle plant. The city, with about 25,000 residents, is also the home of other midsize companies such as Huber Packaging, the world’s largest manufacturer of five-liter beer kegs.

“Mahle is painful, but it’s manageable,” Mr. Michler said.

Unemployment is so low that most Mahle workers will probably find new jobs by the time the plant ceases operations by the end of 2020. But they will have trouble finding work that pays as well, and may have to accept temporary contracts that offer little job security, said Rüdiger Bresien, an official of the IG Metall union who represents workers in the area.

Mr. Bresien said job losses from upheaval in the car industry were bigger than they seemed, with companies quietly letting go of workers on temporary contracts.

“In a lot of firms, we see that temp work is going down a lot,” Mr. Bresien said. “But you don’t hear so much about that.”

He said he worried that frustrated workers would be drawn to the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party. In elections for the European Parliament in May, the populist party scored 10 percent of the vote in the state of Baden-Württemberg, which includes Öhringen.

“There is always a risk that people ask, ‘Who’s at fault?’ and ‘Who’s going to help me?’” Mr. Bresien said.

The gently rolling countryside around Öhringen is dotted with factories carrying the logos of companies that may not be household names but often dominate their niche markets. Such companies are a big reason for Germany’s economic success.

Just down the autobahn, for example, is Ziehl-Abegg, a maker of industrial fans that has more than 4,000 employees worldwide.

Owned by a grandson of the inventor who founded the company in 1910, Ziehl-Abegg has achieved soaring sales over the last decade. But this year, sales were flat, reflecting a broader decline in German industrial production.

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