Tesla’s Factory in Berlin Encounters with Activists, Bureaucracy and Lizards


GRÜNHEIDE, Germany – Surrounded by a pine forest east of Berlin, the vast pale gray factory with its own exit on the highway was supposed to be producing shiny new Teslas by now. Instead, it became a manifestation of what happened when Silicon Valley ambition clashed with German procedure.

The $7 billion factory, which will supply electric cars to the fast-growing European market, is at least six months behind schedule, according to local officials. And Tesla may be even further away from making cars in Germany because construction has just begun at an adjacent factory that will supply batteries. Tesla declined to comment.

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

A floating start date could cost Tesla dearly. It saves time for competitor manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Renault trying to build their own expanding line of electric cars.

Tesla’s Model 3, which the company imports from China or the United States to Europe, is the best-selling electric vehicle on the continent. However, Volkswagen’s electrified models such as the ID.3 hatchback and ID.4 sport utility vehicle introduced last year outpaced Tesla in combined sales, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin who monitors electric car sales in Europe.

“The European market is totally hot right now,” Mr. Schmidt said. “It’s definitely a missed opportunity for Tesla and a won opportunity for European manufacturers.”

The history of American automakers that crossed the Atlantic and found a profitable home in Europe is thin. Dealing with troubled labor unions and difficulties in reading the preferences of local car buyers have made Europe a money pit for foreign automakers.

General Motors sold its European Opel and Vauxhall operations to the company now known as Stellantis after decades of losses. Ford of Europe struggled to stem the decline in its market share of 4 percent in the European Union in May. Even Toyota, which has 6 percent of the European market, failed to catch the popularity it enjoyed in Asia and the United States.

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, appears to have chosen Germany for the company’s third-largest assembly plant, capable of producing around 500,000 vehicles a year, in part because he wants to leverage the engineering and manufacturing expertise that Mercedes allows. -Benz, Audi and BMW will dominate the global market for luxury passenger cars. Last year, he wore a black waistcoat, a white shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat. German journeyman builder, for a celebration marking the completion of the factory’s beam structure.

The departure masked a more fundamental culture clash at work.

“On the one hand, you have the American enthusiasm for new ideas, for implementing them as quickly as possible,” said Rolf Lindemann, the Oder-Spree county commissioner where the factory is located. “On the other hand, you have the German approach to think everything through to the end, see the results and 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 timelines. autonomous driving, electric long-haul trucks and rocket launches.

But Mr. Musk may have acquired more German culture than he had hoped. Germany is the land of relentless environmental activists like Manuela Hoyer, 61, a former union organizer who lives nearly six miles from the factory and believes the factory can be stopped before it produces her first car. This may be unrealistic given that the factory is nearing completion as workers are putting the finishing touches on the exterior and installing machinery inside.

“When the second richest man in the world shows up, they roll out the red carpet and give him whatever he wants,” said Ms. Hoyer, who was accused of trespassing. (Charges dropped.) “This is really a crime not only against the environment, but against the population here as well.”

Part of a small group of citizens keeping an eye on the Tesla project, Ms. Hoyer speaks at public hearings about the project and is a stern letter writer who sends letters to local authorities or calls the police when she sees it. anything on the site that it considers violates local clean water laws or other regulations.

Two other groups, the Brandenburg Nature Conservation Federation and the Green League, known as NABU, went to court to force Tesla to relocate a population of sand lizards that are about 10 inches long and are bright green and gray. the sandy soil of the site, as well as a few smooth picks up to 30 inches long. Both species are considered threatened under German and European law.

Complicating the operation, which is expected to be completed by the end of summer, snakes prey on lizards. Environmentalists say lizards must be moved before they can adapt to new habitats and have a chance to fight for survival when 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 prevent Tesla from cutting corners, and so far they’ve managed to reduce the number of trees the company is allowed to cut.

“Not everything can be done at Tesla speed,” said NABU regional head Christiane Schroeder.

Tesla has yet to seriously deal with Germany’s tough labor unions and the laws that support them. Birgit Dietze, leader of the regional unit of the IG Metall union, which represents German auto workers, said via email that it ultimately “depends on the workers” how much they want to organize. “If they want to organize for good working conditions and push for a wage agreement, we will support them.”

Political leaders in the region are definitely on Tesla’s side. They point to 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, Minister for Economic Affairs of the State of Brandenburg, helped persuade Tesla to set up a factory in Grünheide and linked his political future to the success of the project. “The noise they make is disproportionate to the number of people,” said one of the project’s opponents.

However, Mr. Steinbach also expressed his disappointment at Tesla’s public indifference to the local public, saying that he often had to act as Tesla’s spokesperson as the company made little effort to communicate with the local community.

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

Officials said some of the delays were due to Tesla revising its construction permit application at least 15 times, and new interim approvals were needed.

Whenever it is hungry, the assembly factory is already a huge structure. one air tour A finished roof is shown by local drone operators, with skylights and mushroom-shaped ventilation pipes. At ground level, the loading bays are ready to receive components and raw materials.

The mayor of Grünheide, Arne Christiani, sees the factory as a chance to revive an area that was once part of East Germany that has been damaged since German reunification in 1990, when young people migrated west in search of more excitement and opportunity.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the biggest employers in the region was a facility where the Stasi secret police opened and read mail from East Germans’ friends and family in the West. The area where the Tesla factory was located was used by East German soldiers preparing to fight NATO; In fact, unexploded ordnance was cleared on the property before construction began.

Mr. Christiani dismisses the site’s opponents as a small but vocal minority dominated by the newly arrived wealthy – a charge Ms Hoyer denies. The mayor expresses hope that the factory will grow further and attract other businesses to the area.

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


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