Mechanics gear up for uncertain electric future

HAMBURG, Germany — For René Kienas, owning a small independent garage in car-worshipping Germany has meant a lifetime of steady work.

But for his younger partner Ricardo Wunderlich, 35, the future will be “significantly more colorful and more uncertain,” he told POLITICO in the back office of Kienas’ garage, tucked behind a busy inner-city street in one of the wealthiest areas of Hamburg.

That’s because the car industry faces at least two massive upheavals. One is the likely replacement of millions of diesel and gasoline-engine cars by electric vehicles. The second is the looming prospect of self-driving cars and car-sharing apps. Those intertwined revolutions will mean wrenching change for the millions who make their living from the car industry — affecting car assembly workers, car rental agents, taxi drivers and mechanics like Kienas and Wunderlich.

The core issue is that the car industry of the future is going to need far fewer workers than today.

Roman Pawlowski for POLITICO

Conventional engines, transmissions and exhaust systems — together making up a car’s powertrain — are a lot more complicated than their battery-powered replacements — which consist of a battery pack and an electric motor. A conventional powertrain has about 1,400 parts, while an electric one only has about 200.

That means fewer workers will be needed to assemble and maintain the new types of automobiles.

“Electric motors are smaller and less complex than internal combustion engines. Highly automated production is possible for battery packs and electric motors,” according to a study on the car industry by ING Bank.

No country is more aware of the problem than Germany, home to Europe’s most important automotive industry. A new study by the country’s largest labor union IG Metall found that if electric vehicles were to make up for 40 percent of the car market by 2030, roughly a third of those employed in building internal combustion engines and powertrains for the auto sector would lose their jobs.

Fewer parts = less work

While an electric car revolution would also create thousands of new jobs, its impact on the labor market would be enormous.

Because electric cars have fewer parts to wear out, simpler motors will mean less work for garages like the one owned by Kienas.

“If we would exchange all that’s running on an internal combustion engine to an electric motor, then half of the companies would be unemployed” as the need for regular checkups and maintenance would go down, Kienas said. “It’d be all electric motors, without any wear and tear.”

For the moment electric cars are still a rarity on European roads. Sales this year are expected to come in at about 200,000, according to LMC Automotive, a consultancy. Electric cars should account for between 2 percent to 8 percent of all European cars by 2020, says the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.

That’s not enough to derail Kienas’ life plans — he aims to retire in the next decade.

Kienas’ garage has adapted to change in the past; on its paint-flecked walls trays of wrenches, spanners and other traditional tools jostle for space with computers and modern diagnostic instruments.

“Electric cars don’t worry me, just look at the numbers,” said Kienas, 51.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *