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Car mechanics gear up for a more 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.

Thats 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 cars 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 Europes most important automotive industry. A new study by the countrys 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 thats 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. “Itd 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.

Thats 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 dont worry me, just look at the numbers,” said Kienas, 51.

Roman Pawlowski for POLITICO

He thinks the shift will have an impact on his business once the share of electric cars hits 10 or 12 percent of the total fleet. “But I simply dont believe in that yet. When I look at whos driving an electric vehicle, its CEOs of huge companies, and they dont drive much.”

He also hopes that there will still be plenty of work on parts that wont change with the new cars. “It does have wheels, and it does have brakes — all of that has stayed the same. Its still a car. Its simply that the powertrain has changed,” Kienas said.

“While I cant determine which way the wind will blow, I doubt that people will own cars in a major way” — Rene Kienas

For Wunderlich, who figures on working for 30 more years, the future looks less certain and less fun.

“The internal combustion engine is more complex, more interesting, more diverse,” he said. Instead, with an electric car there will be a greater focus on the brakes, wheels, and car components. “Always the same thing. Thats how I imagine it.”

“While I cant determine which way the wind will blow, I doubt that people will own cars in a major way,”

It also means he likely faces “massive further training” to work on high voltage equipment.

More disruption looms as car and ride-sharing applications such as Uber, Drive Now and Car to Go become ever more popular, reducing the need to own a car, or even to have a drivers license.

“While I cant determine which way the wind will blow, I doubt that people will own cars in a major way,” Kienas said.

His partner should know. Wunderlich fixes cars for a living, but he cant drive.

“Even if I had a license, I wouldnt have a car,” he said pointing to handy alternatives from public transport to transport apps. “It doesnt get any cheaper.”

This article is part of the Clean Mobility special report.

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