The Generation EQ Concept previews a new generation of Mercs, which will be battery powered.

Stuttgart - Carmakers are spending billions trying to achieve a breakthrough for electric cars. But since nobody knows when this will happen, it makes planning for the future all the tougher. The birth pangs are great, especially at the moment in a particularly important site for German carmaker Daimler.

When the topic is the future of Daimler's main production site, Frank Deiss gets a bit agitated.

"This is a tightrope act between creating paranoia and handing out sedatives," says the top factory manager.

It is here of all places - Daimler's flagship plant in Stuttgart-Untertuerkheim - where the rubber hits the road at the dawn of the era of electric cars.

Deiss heads a plant that has some 19 000 workers and more than 100 years' carmaking history behind it. Engines and transmissions are produced here, which is why its workers have a lot more worries than colleagues at other factory sites.

One question keeps them awake at nights: What becomes of us if electric cars gain in importance and the internal combustion engine is on its way out? For weeks now, the works council and the company have been negotiating about specific plans for the Untertuerkheim plant, so far without result.

Blessing and a curse

For workers, electromobility can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it should help assure the car industry's future amid increasingly tight climate protection regulations and the ongoing debate about diesel engines. On the other, electric cars require completely differing parts than internal combustion one. That could mean less work for plants like Stuttgart-Untertuerkheim.

What is pretty certain is that car of the future will be electric. But that's about as far as the predictions go. Willi Diez, head of the Automobile Industry Institute in Geislingen, speaks of "many factors of uncertainty" ahead.

"Everybody is kind of tapping around in the fog," he say. Change is coming - but not just yet. "We are talking more about 2030 than about 2020," he said. Daimler is calculating that electric and hybrid cars will have a 15- to 25-percent share by 2025. VW and BMW have similar figures in mind. Competitors must come up with similar investment sums - and be ready to deal with the consequences which the changes will pose for manufacturing jobs.

If the development continues as projected, factory manager Deiss says, in Daimler's case, it will by no means spell the quick end to petrol- and diesel-powered engines. In fact, in 2025, even more conventional motors will be built than today.

Workers might be expected to be pleased by the prospect that the Untertuerkheim plant will retain its status as Daimler's leading plant, even in the future electric-powered age.

But workers and management are at odds about which drive components are to be manufactured there.

The company wants to set up a battery manufacturing plant. It already has one in the eastern German town of Kamenz, and another one is to go online in China in 2020. Bringing one to Untertuerkheim will be expensive. To compensate, the company has asked workers to undergo some of the required retraining on their own free time.

Works council boss Wolfgang Nieke rejects this proposal and also insists that the electrical drive systems should be manufactured in the Untertuerkheim plant. Beyond that, he argues, the overall framework of Daimler's electric car offensive has not yet been mapped out. Only when that's done can there be discussion about the specific details.

The wrangling between Nieke and Daimler managers in Stuttgart went on well into the evening on Monday.

"Since the company is making no promises, we will be increasing the pressure further," said Nieke.

That means he called workers off an extra production shift set for Saturday, the second time he's done so. Daimler countered by cancelling an early shift at the E-class car assembly lines, also the second time it's done so.

Volkswagen facing equally tricky balancing act

On the one hand, the aim is for cost savings of billions and slimmed-down operations. On the other, it wants investments of billions in new technology.

VW's "future pact" is supposed to accomplish both. Besides the decision for research on battery cells, the engine plant in Salzgitter has chances to become a battery production site. Works council boss Bernd Osterloh is planning for an investment in the "upper hundreds of millions" to boost worker qualifications.

And BMW is likewise pumping high sums of money into further electric car models, with the aim of improving profit margins further. This will mean cutting back on the range of extras offered in the cars.

Electromobility has a dark side to it, something recognized by the metal workers union IG Metall, which is deeply rooted in the automotive industry.

Job losses can be expected, although opportunities will arise for specially qualified workers. But there will be limits, as Daimler works council chief Michael Brecht once noted. "Not everyone who is an engineer can also create apps," he said.