Since the day Gottlieb Daimler moved his fledgling motor company to Stuttgart in 1882, the Swabian city has invented and built more automobiles than anyone cares to count or remember.
So it came as a surprise to Fritz Kuhn, the city’s mayor, when a recent tender to renew a part of the official vehicle fleet was met with local silence: “We wanted to buy more than 40 electric cars but couldn’t find a single German company that wanted to bid on the contract. In the end, we bought French.”
Stuttgart has long drawn pride and prosperity from local companies such as Daimler, Porsche and Bosch. Today, however, that pride is tinged with anxiety.
Like the rest of the German car industry, Stuttgart’s automakers have seen their reputations battered by a scandal over diesel emissions and allegations that they colluded with rivals to reduce competition.
Lurking beyond the recent headlines is a much deeper fear: that Stuttgart and its car industry are on the wrong side of a seismic shift that is causing tremors across the sector and angry debates in the run-up to Germany’s general election next Sunday.
Critics charge that the nation’s carmakers are far behind their rivals in fast-growing areas such as electric vehicles and cars powered by fuel cells. Another threat is posed by the predicted rise of self-driving vehicles and car-sharing platforms, which could drastically lower demand for the city’s high-priced limousines and sports cars.
Locals admit that conversations about the future of Stuttgart are now laced with scary words such as “Detroit” and “Nokia” — reminders that innovation from rivals can push even the most successful industries and companies to the brink of extinction.
“The downward spiral starts when you have a strong, dominant industry that thinks: what makes me strong today will also make me strong tomorrow,” says Mr Kuhn, a veteran leader of Germany’s Green party who has served as mayor of Stuttgart since 2012.
“This is what happened in Detroit and this is what happened with the steel industry in Germany’s Ruhr region. The moment when you are bursting with strength is the time when you are most at risk. But I think our industry is aware of that risk.”
The local mood, however, has changed, says Arnold Lederer, a prominent Stuttgart-based architect and activist: “There is a sense of uncertainty. Many people realise that the car industry is no guarantee that we will have a livelihood for the next 100 years.”
For the moment, Stuttgart’s car industry is indeed bursting with strength. Both Daimler and Porsche reported record sales for the first half of the year, and they continue to generate billions of euros in annual profits.
But according to Mr Kuhn, it is precisely the current success that should make the industry fret about the future. “This is the problem of many car companies in Europe, including the ones here in Stuttgart. However, they should not make the mistake to say: we are earning good money with the current technology. Why should we jump headfirst into a new technology?”
The election of a Green politician to lead the country’s car capital was a wake-up call to the auto industry, a sign that even in Stuttgart the primacy of the automobile is facing challenges.
Mr Kuhn is at pains to stress his support for the industry, but he has also pledged to cut car traffic in the city centre by 20 per cent, and is working hard to expand public transport and squeeze out motorists.
Such moves reflect the fact that Stuttgart has some of the worst air pollution in all of Germany. The official limit on nitrogen dioxide is exceeded so regularly that a local court issued a ruling in July clearing the way for an official driving ban for heavily polluting diesel cars.
“The car industry is the main reason for the wealth of this city. But now many people associate the industry with the diesel scandal, with air pollution and with traffic jams,” says Wieland Backes, a former talk show host who now leads a campaign group trying to make Stuttgart more liveable.
One of the group’s main targets is the eight-lane highway that runs through the city, driving a thunderous wedge between Stuttgart’s centre and its principal museums. Mr Backes argues that the city, which was rebuilt after the second world war to suit motorists above others, needs fundamental change.
Car executives have followed the recent shift in local opinion with growing disbelief and anger. “We are portrayed as bad boys who are maliciously building dirty cars . . . the public pressure is hysterical,” says one Stuttgart-based manager. “The whole region — not just Stuttgart but the whole region — lives off the car industry. The wealth here is based on building cars. So it is surprising to see how some are trying to attack and destroy this basis.”
The accusation is echoed by the conservative opposition. Stefan Kaufmann, a Christian Democrat member of the German parliament who represents Stuttgart, accuses the Green city hall of “making politics against the car”.
Mr Kuhn dismisses the charge, saying he enjoys the sight of a sleek Porsche or Mercedes as much as the average Stuttgart auto enthusiast.
His city, he says, will “continue to build excellent cars” in the years and decades ahead. But some things will have to change.
“There is a saying here: when Daimler coughs, the whole region gets pneumonia. And you have a point there. And that means that we cannot maintain the prosperity we enjoy today if the car industry doesn’t accelerate the transformation process.”