At Volkswagen’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, car bodies soar high above the concrete floor on conveyors, like seats on a slow-moving carnival ride. Every 73 seconds one gets lowered onto a power train, and soon body and chassis begin rising together.
As I watch, workers in roller chairs carrying pistol-shaped power wrenches glide beneath a Passat sailing by at chest height. They fasten rock guards and skid plates to the undercarriage before holstering their tools to await the next car.
Across 3.4 million square feet, about 3,800 workers and 1,500 robots move in this stop-and-go rhythm all day, building some of the most recognizable gasoline-powered vehicles on the road—45 an hour, 337 per shift, more than 1.1 million since Volkswagen finished the plant in 2011.
This site has a complicated history: Beginning in World War II and periodically for the next three decades, military contractors processed nitric and sulfuric acid here to make TNT, storing the munitions in concrete bunkers in nearby forests. Toxic fumes from the factory scalded petunias and yellowed pine needles for miles. But today, in a city that once had America’s worst air pollution, on a former weapons site that contributed mightily to those filthy skies, a car company with its own messy legacy on emissions—Volkswagen cheated on pollution rules for seven years—is trying to help green the nation’s transportation system.