The Future of the American Car

This week the Center for Automotive Research in Detroit is holding its annual conference on the future of cars.  Entitled “Today's Turmoil: a Foundation for Success”, the four day conference allows the global industry to hear the insights of people like Akio Toyoda, the new president of Toyota who is shaking up the company started by his grandfather and discuss subjects such as manufacturing and how to make sustainable cars.  A new face this year: Ed Bloom of the US Auto Task Force in the role of the industry's new partner, government.

With global sales down almost 50% from their peak, it has, indeed, been a brutal year for the industry, especially so for the Big Three, now really One and a Half.   From this new low base, however, the industry is certain to rebound.  The question is whether it will rebound in America or whether the center of gravity of auto manufacturing will continue to shift away.  After the decades-old decline of the Big Three's market share, all the management studies and manufacturing initiatiaves, capped by GM and Chysler’s bankruptcy filings, some would argue the US industry is past recovery.  I disagree. 

I believe US carmakers can be part of the global rebound.  I also believe they must be if the US is to benefit from the clean economic revolution.  However, recovery of the industry won't come easy.   The US car industry needs to reinvent itself with help from policymakers and by listening to people outside the industry, especially the customer..  The good news it that auto manufacturing tends toward decentralization.  The weight of cars, variations in standards by country and a healthy measure of politics combines to encourage localized production.  There is no risk yet of a laptop-style shift of the entire industry to Asia.  The challenges are best described as severe but surmountable.  Here are six things the US auto industry needs to do to re-emerge in strong shape from the Great Recession of which government has a role in three:

First the industry needs to rediscover innovation.  In its glory days, passionate engineers invented new tires, transmissions, solutions to the problem of knock, the octane system of gasoline, ball bearings and other breakthrough technologies of the day, the equivalent of Twitter or Facebook or in the auto industry, new battery technologies, electric drive trains, carbon fiber materials, computerization, and energy economy technologies today.  One idea would be for US car companies to put venture capitalists from Silicon Valley or prominent scientists on their boards and move their R&D operations to Silicon Valley.   VC-backed Tesla, for example, is making major strides from its Palo Alto base. Palo Alto-based Better Place is similarly working with Renault and Nissan to pioneer new charging technology for an all electric car.  Cars are a technology product and it is time to remember this.  They are also a lifestyle product.  The Big Three should draw more design inspiration from places like New York and Los Angeles.  In its early days, GM had its headquarters in New York and it would behoove the industry to reconnect with centers of excellence across the country.

Second, the US car industry needs to recapture its ability to anticipate changes in consumer taste.  In My Years at General Motors, Alfred Sloan discussed how hard this always was, yet how essential: “Even though it takes years to develop a new product, it is our job to be ready with it when there is an effective demand”.  He was describing a problem that bedeviled the industry even in1957: a sudden desire by Americans for small cars—something in which the rest of the world even then excelled due to smaller streets, high priced gas and shorter distances—that caused imports to leap.  In that crisis, the Big Three responded with cars like the Corvair a year later to recapture the lower end of the market and bring imports from 10% back down to a negligible level.  The Big Three were far less successful after the oil shocks of the 1970s when imports began building market share.  They face an even sterner challenge in the wake of last year’s oil shock.  Message: be ready with small cars when they are needed.  And in the wake of climate change which is not going away: improve fuel efficiency.

Third, the US industry must try to reinvigorate its supplier base which has suffered even more than the OEMs in recent years.  A focused effort by industry to source locally and government support to high tech companies making batteries and other parts can help fuel the substrate necessary to a sound industry going forward.  Alan Mullaly at Ford is already shifting Ford toward greater outsourcing of parts.  To insure long term sustainability, it is important to rebuild the North American infrastructure.  As discussed below, this should be an element of negotiation with companies entering the US market.

Fourth, much has been made of the so-called cost disadvantage of the Big Three’s legacy costs which supposedly added $2,000 to the value of each car.  In fact, the appropriate way to deal with liabilities was always on the balance sheet as a capital item not as an operating one.  The GM and Chrysler bankruptcies put an end to much of this liability.  However, properly accounted for and written down, these legacy costs should be a footnote on the balance sheet, not a drag on operating profit..

Fifth, much has similarly been made of the supposedly high wages paid by US carmakers relative to foreign companies that have set up shop in the South.  While the gap is overstated, labor costs are lower in the South due to lower costs and the absence of unionization.  Here the US needs to act carefully but act on labor rules that have created an unfair playing field.  Due to our state system of regulation, the US has both right to work states and others where unionization is common.  Taking advantage of US federalism, foreign manufacturers even if their own countries are 100% union have set up shop in the South. A notable exception to this stratifaction is the unionized Toyota NUMMI facility in Fremont, California, where GM was a partner however, there is talk of Toyota closing that plant in the wake of GM’s pullout.

The answer to this is not heavy handed change in our federalist system.   However, as Bob Reich has argued, the US, as a whole, loses when states and even towns bid against one another for new factories.  He proposed a body or at least baseline standards to negotiate on behalf of American manufacturing sites.  It would not be unreasonable to require new factories to offer employees a chance to organize at some point after the plant is built, require some level of local sourcing of parts and at least try to negotiate for research and development investments.  Until other countries relax their standards for foreign investment, we should not give away the store.

Sixth, and here government is the critical player, the industry needs a reasonable exchange rate.  For about a quarter century, since the end of the 1982 recession, a high dollar has benefited our financial sector at the expense of manufacturing.  Something similar happened in England’s transition from manufacturing to finance capitalism in the late 19th Century when it shifted from a trade surplus to deficit (driving a quest for colonies.).  The dangers of over reliance on finance are clear.  Recently, Laura Tyson floated the idea of retooling our economy more toward investment and manufacturing in lieu of finance, in part, by lowering the value of the dollar.  Dollar policy is not something that is widely discussed or even understood yet it has an immense effect on the structure of our economy.  Perhaps like war it is too important to be left to the generals and should be the subject of an open and intellectually rigorous academic and industry discussion.

In short, cars will continue to be built in the United States.  The question is whether we will be leaders or followers, designing the breakthrough cars of the future, or building cars introduced somewhere else a few years earlier.

To this point, of the top 5 cars purchased under the Cash for Clunkers program, four bear Japanese nameplates.   (The rankings are Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Toyota Prius.)  Of these, all but the Prius are largely made in the United States and Toyota will begin making the Prius in Mississippi next year.  While Japanese, German and Korean investment in factories in the United States is a win win, creating jobs, economic activity and tax revenues, it does not amount to leadership. 

In conclusion, the US auto industry faces huge challenges.  But the bottom of a cycle creates opportunity and the decks are now clear for a rebound.  It was not long ago that the US industries—after suffering through the 1980s--mounted a partial comeback, improving quality and inventing breakthrough products of the day such as the minivan and SUV—formats soon copied by others.  US industry and policymakers should begin taking action now to lead recovery when it inevitably comes.