Tesla’s Berlin factory collides with activists, paperwork and lizards

GRÜNHEIDE, Germany – The sprawling pale gray factory with its own highway exit, surrounded by a pine forest east of Berlin, was supposed to produce shiny new Teslas. Instead, he’s become a manifestation of what happens when Silicon Valley’s ambition collides with German litigation.

The $ 7 billion plant, which will supply Europe’s rapidly growing electric car market, is at least six months behind schedule, local officials say. And Tesla may be even further from producing cars in Germany, as construction of an adjacent factory that will supply batteries has only just begun. Tesla declined to comment.

Tesla’s first large assembly plant in Europe enjoys strong support from regional political leaders, but has been delayed by legal challenges from environmental groups, delays in the approval process by regional and national agencies and the own revisions of the plan by the automaker. Tesla must also find new homes for the site’s current residents: a species of lizard and the kind of snake that likes to eat it.

The slippery start date could prove costly for Tesla. This gives competing manufacturers like Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Renault time to try and establish their own expanding electric car lines.

Tesla’s Model 3, which the company imports to Europe from China or the United States, is the best-selling electric vehicle on the continent. But Volkswagen’s electric models like the ID.3 hatchback and ID.4 sport utility vehicle, introduced over the past year, have overtaken Tesla in combined sales, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin who tracks sales. of electric cars in Europe.

“The European market is completely hot right now,” Schmidt said. “This is definitely a missed opportunity for Tesla and a won opportunity for European manufacturers.”

The history of the American automakers who jumped the Atlantic and found a profitable home in Europe is thin. Dealing with annoying unions and difficulty reading the preferences of local car buyers has turned Europe into a money pit for foreign automakers.

General Motors in 2017 sold its European Opel and Vauxhall operations to the company now known as Stellantis after decades of losses. Ford Europe has struggled to stop a decline in its market share, which was only 4% in May in the European Union. Even Toyota, with 6 percent of the European market, failed to match the popularity it enjoys in Asia and the United States.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk appears to have chosen Germany for the company’s third major assembly plant, which will be able to produce around 500,000 vehicles per year, in part because he wanted to tap into the expertise in engineering and manufacturing which has enabled Mercedes -Benz, Audi and BMW to dominate the global luxury passenger car market. Last year he dressed in a black waistcoat, white shirt, and wide-brimmed hat, the traditional attire of a fellow German builder, for a celebration marking the completion of the structure beams from the factory.

The dressing masked a more fundamental cultural shock at work.

“On the one hand, you have the American enthusiasm for new ideas, to implement them as quickly as possible,” said Rolf Lindemann, commissioner for Oder-Spree County, the site of the factory. “On the other side, you have this German approach, to think until the conclusion, to see the consequences and to try to minimize the risks – to analyze everything in depth.”

The delay is nothing new for Tesla, which has a long history of overly optimistic calendars to autonomous driving, electric long-haul trucks and rocket launches.

But Mr. Musk may have acquired more German culture than he expected. Germany is a country of relentless environmental activists like Manuela Hoyer, a 61-year-old former union organizer who lives about 10 kilometers from the factory and is one of the few people who think she can still be arrested before to produce his first car. This may be unrealistic, given that the factory appears to be close to completion, with workers putting the finishing touches on the exterior and installing machinery on the interior.

“When the second richest man in the world shows up, they roll out the red carpet and give him whatever he asks for,” said Ms Hoyer, who has been accused of trespassing on the site. (The charges have been dropped.) “It really is a crime, not just against the environment but also against the people here.”

Ms Hoyer, who is one of a small group of citizens who is monitoring the Tesla Project, speaks at public hearings on the project, and is a fierce writer who sends letters to local authorities or calls the police whenever she is. she sees something on the site that she considers a violation of local drinking water laws or other ordinances.

Two other groups, the Brandenburg Conservation Federation, known as NABU, and the Green League, have gone to court to force Tesla to relocate a population of sand lizards, around 10 inches long. and bright green and gray, which thrive in the site’s sandy soil, along with several smooth vipers 30 inches long. Both species are considered threatened by German and European legislation.

To complicate the operation, supposed to be completed by the end of the summer, the snakes attack the lizards. Environmentalists say the lizards need to be moved first so they can adapt to the new habitat and have a chance to survive once their predators arrive.

Environmental groups trying to sue Tesla say they don’t expect to be able to stop the project. But they want to stop Tesla from cutting corners, and they have so far been successful in reducing the number of trees the company has been allowed to cut.

“Not everything can be done at Tesla’s speed,” said Christiane Schröder, NABU regional manager.

Tesla has yet to seriously deal with German unions and the laws that favor them. Birgit Dietze, the leader of the regional unit of the IG Metall union, which represents German auto workers, said by email that it “depends on the employees” to what extent they ultimately want to organize. “If they want to organize for good working conditions and push for a wage contract, we will support them. “

The region’s political leaders are firmly on Tesla’s side. They highlight the more than 10,000 jobs Tesla is expected to create, as well as thousands of additional jobs at suppliers, nearby retailers and other local businesses.

Jörg Steinbach, the Minister for Economic Affairs of the Land of Brandenburg, helped persuade Tesla to build the Grünheide plant and staked his political future on the success of the project. Among the opponents of the project, he said: “The noise they make is disproportionate to their number.

But Mr Steinbach also expressed frustration at Tesla’s apparent indifference to local public opinion, complaining that he often has to be Tesla’s spokesperson because the company does little. efforts to communicate with the local community.

“I’ve said it more than once: I’m not Tesla’s spokesperson,” Steinbach said.

Some of the delays were caused by Tesla, which revised its building permit application at least 15 times, officials said, which required new temporary approvals.

With each opening, the assembly plant is already a massive structure. a aerial tour by local drone operators shows a finished roof with rows of skylights and mushroom-shaped ventilation pipes. On the ground floor, loading docks are ready to receive components and raw materials.

Arne Christiani, the mayor of Grünheide, sees the factory as a chance to revive a region which was once part of East Germany and which has suffered since the reunification of Germany in 1990, when young people migrated west in search of more excitement and opportunity.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the region’s largest employers was a facility where the Stasi secret police steamed and read mail that East Germans received from friends and family. West. The site where the Tesla factory is located was used by East German soldiers preparing to fight NATO; in fact, the property was cleared of unexploded ordnance before construction could begin.

Mr Christiani dismisses opponents of the site as a small but noisy minority dominated by affluent newcomers – an accusation Ms Hoyer dismisses. The mayor expresses the hope that the plant will further expand and attract other businesses to the region.

“There are opportunities that we would never have talked about two years ago,” said Christiani.

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