(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Elon Musk’s announcement that Tesla Inc. will build a factory and a research center near Berlin makes perfect sense as a loud statement. Berlin isn’t known as a car city but it does have a vigorous tech scene and Tesla isn’t so much a car company as a tech one. But it’s also reasonable from other points of view.
Musk, who has spent some time deciding on a European factory location, has decided on Gruenheide in Brandenburg, the German state that surrounds Berlin, and the research facility is to be located near Berlin’s yet-to-open new international airport.
That the new factory should be in Germany is logical. Germany is Europe’s biggest market for electric vehicles and the one with the biggest potential. Germany is Europe’s most populous country, Germans are in love with cars and worried about the environment, as evidenced by the recent electoral successes of the Greens.
It also matters that Germany is a country with some of Europe’s strongest incentives for electric car buyers. It recently decided to increase the maximum subsidy for buyers of battery vehicles to 6,000 euros ($6,600) from 4,000 euros and extend it until 2025. France, Italy and Slovenia offer roughly as much.
One could regard Musk’s move as a cheeky foray into the land of its top competitors. Volkswagen AG has launched an all-out electrification strategy that pits it directly against Musk’s mass-market hope, the Model 3 (which apparently won’t be made at the new Berlin factory, at least to start with). In September, the German giant launched the ID.3, the first car on its new platform meant for electric vehicles. Berlin is flooded with electric Golfs that VW made available this year for WeShare, the company’s nascent car-sharing operation. And even before VW starts turning out tens of thousands of cars especially developed as EVs, the e-Golf is already among the Model 3’s strong competitors in Germany, along with Bayerische Motorenwerke AG’s somewhat clunkier i3 and some other European electric cars.
But then, it makes sense to keep close to the competition, work with the same suppliers and be able to poach star managers, engineers and designers. Tesla isn’t the cheeky challenger here — the German automakers are, when it comes to EVs. Musk, in a sense, is buying insurance against being overtaken technologically. That could even justify the large differential in workers’ wages: While the average Tesla assembly worker at in California makes $18 per hour, the lowest-paid German auto worker makes about 27 euros per hour, almost $30.
There’s also some symbolism to Tesla’s move into Berlin in particular. The capital city was the first German location for Ford, which started assembling Model T’s there in 1926, not fearing competition from German automakers who were slower to catch on to mass production.
And yet Berlin and its surrounding area aren’t obvious locations for an auto industry operation. Though BMW makes motorcycles in Berlin, Daimler AG has production sites both in and outside the city and VW has a design center in Potsdam, most of Germany’s car production, engineering and design take place elsewhere.
Instead, Berlin has a flourishing startup culture. According to Deutscher Startup Monitor, 16% of Germany’s startup companies are located in Berlin. Only the country’s most populous state, North Rhein-Westphalia, has a bigger share. And when it comes to the number of tech workers, Berlin has more of them per 100,000 residents than any German state except Hamburg and Hesse. Arguably, as a European tech hub the German capital ranks second only to London and possibly Paris. Musk said Brexit ruled out the U.K. as a potential site, and France has such restrictive labor laws that it’s difficult to imagine Tesla opening a 10,000-job operation there when there are other choices.
“Berlin rocks,” Musk said as he announced Tesla’s plans.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the heart of the automotive industry is shifting east, and it won’t be beating too far from Berlin in the near future. Zwickau in Saxony, three hours’ drive from the capital, is where VW has started production of the ID.3. Saxony is an emerging auto-industry hub that includes BMW and Porsche factories; IG Metall, the labor union that represents many auto workers, counts Saxony as part of the same area as Berlin and Brandenburg.
In other words, Musk’s choice of Tesla’s next production and development site is a considered one, even if an impulse to take the battle to Tesla’s deep-pocketed German challengers on their home turf has played an obvious role.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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