The German automobile industry is on the brink of fundamental change. Digitization, driverless cars and electric vehicles will shake up the entire industry. Handelsblatt publisher Gabor Steingart discussed the new challenges with the chief executives of the three largest German car companies at the Handelsblatt auto summit in Munich. Harald Krüger (BMW), Matthias Müller (Volkswagen) and Dieter Zetsche (Daimler) say German manufacturers can handle the transformation.
Handelsblatt: We have just experienced a momentous night, with the election of Donald Trump. Mr. Zetsche, what were your first thoughts when you heard about the outcome of the election?
Mr. Zetsche: After the Brexit decision, I was certainly forewarned not to trust the latest opinion polls. Still, I didn’t expect this outcome. In every election, the campaign is harsher than what actually happens afterwards. I hope and believe that this will also apply in the present case. We need to wait and see what actual steps can be expected. A certain amount of skepticism is appropriate after this election campaign, but we’re ready for surprises.
Mr. Krüger, BMW has a strong presence in the United States. What are your concrete expectations? Will the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) survive this new president?
Mr. Krüger: It’s still much too early to evaluate that today. We will have to wait and see what President Trump’s foreign and economic policy will look like. But we need open world trade and the free exchange of goods. We sell the vehicles produced in our U.S. plant in South Carolina all over the world. Another important question is what happens next in the NAFTA region, especially between the United States and Mexico. All German automakers already have plants in Mexico, or are currently developing them.
Volkswagen also wants to grow again in the United States. What is your assessment of the election outcome?
Mr. Müller: Of course, we are in a unique situation in the United States at the moment. We have been working closely with U.S. authorities throughout the year, and now we are of course interested in wrapping things up soon. That’s why we are anxious to see what happens to staff at government agencies.
Is it possible that these negotiations can still be brought to a close with the current administration?
Mr. Müller: I hope so. We have come a long way in the process. But of course I am not familiar with the U.S. Justice Department’s schedule. Let’s wait and see what the next few days will bring.
Have there been any initial reactions from your employees in the United States? Cries for help, or a need for consolation?
Mr. Müller: Well, it isn’t quite that bad. But I agree with Mr. Zetsche in saying we did not expect this outcome. The polling had indicated a different result. What is most surprising is how definitely Mr. Trump ended up winning the election. We have to adjust to every new political situation, and we’re used to it. Brexit is another current example of that.
Have your heard from your employees in the United States, Mr. Krüger?
Mr. Krüger: Of course, we discussed this issue at length ahead of the election. The election of Donald Trump is another example of the growing volatility with which we are confronted. Unexpected things happen every day. We need to be capable of reacting flexibly to volatility. This capability is one of the strengths of German industry.