Christopher Rauwald and Bruce Einhorn
May 26th, 2020
At a factory near Germany’s border with the Czech Republic, Volkswagen AG’s ambitious strategy to become the global leader in electric vehicles is coming up against the reality of manufacturing during a pandemic.
The Zwickau assembly lines, which produce the soon-to-be released ID.3 electric hatchback, are the centerpiece of a plan by the world’s biggest automaker to spend 33 billion euros ($36 billion) by 2024 developing and building EVs. At the site, where an East German automaker built the diminutive Trabant during the Cold War, VW eventually wants to churn out as many as 330,000 cars annually. That would make Zwickau one of Europe’s largest electric-car factories—and help the company overtake Tesla Inc. in selling next-generation vehicles.
But Covid-19 is putting VW’s and other automakers’ electric ambitions at risk. The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has pushed the auto industry, among others, to near-collapse, emptying showrooms and shutting factories. As job losses mount, big-ticket purchases are firmly out of reach—in the U.S., where Tesla is cutting prices, more than 36 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. Also, the plunge in oil prices is making gasoline-powered vehicles more attractive, and some cash-strapped governments are less able to offer subsidies to promote new technologies.