We've grown quite accustomed to bad news from the automotive industry lately. How about a note of optimism?
"There's a lot of work to do, but it's going to get done," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan. As a follower of the auto industry, he takes some comfort in moves by the federal government: "The president said that failure of this industry is unacceptable, and they're not going to let it happen."
"The current administration understands the importance of this industry to the health of the economy," says Bruce Belzowski, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. "Even though these companies are going to have to be shrinking, the administration is expecting them to become viable."
And shrinking they are. In late April, General Motors (GM) announced plans to eliminate some 23,000 U.S. jobs by 2011 and to idle plants for much of the summer. It's closing the book on its Pontiac brand, ending Hummer production, and seeking a buyer for Saturn. GM is taking the ax to its dealer network, too, slashing it by 40 percent. The idea is to create a company that can be viable even if industrywide U.S. sales drop to 10 million.
Chrysler, meanwhile, has spent the spring trying to position itself for a merger with Italian automaker Fiat. That has meant wrestling concessions from the United Auto Workers, seeking forgiveness of many of its loans, and getting Daimler AG to give up its remaining stake in the company. Chrysler's goal has been to avoid bankruptcy, though Fiat has said that would not necessarily torpedo the deal.
Ford, meanwhile, has taken to counting its blessings by observing that things certainly could be worse. Unlike its Detroit counterparts, it's operating without federal bailout loans, and though it ran through $3.7 billion of its cash reserves in the first quarter of 2009, that's a slower burn rate than recorded in the previous quarter and the company still has more than $20 billion left. Ford posted a $1.4 billion loss in the first quarter of 2009.
There are many underlying problems, but the basic issue is a frightening drop-off in sales that has translated into a shrinking of production. North American light vehicle production fell from 15.0 million in 2007 to 12.6 million in 2008, according to statistics from Wardsauto.com and the Economic Policy Institute. Production by the Detroit Three fell by more than 20 percent, and other manufacturers operating in North America saw their production drop by about 8 percent.
But Cole believes capacity isn't likely to keep plummeting endlessly. "The industry is getting pretty close to what it needs to be," he says. "If capacity gets too low, we're not going to be able to meet the demand when things improve. As the market strengthens, that capacity will come back fairly quickly."
Still, it's not shaping up to be business as usual. When the economy perks back up, there will be cause to build more cars, but will do that building remains very much up in the air. "Clearly, we're looking at a fundamentally altered automotive industry," says Peter de Lorenzo, publisher of AutoExtremist.com and author of The United States of Toyota. "I don't think anyone really knows what the final outcome is going to be."
If GM comes through this downturn alive, expect it to be a little less than half of its original size, de Lorenzo says, adding that he doesn't see Chrysler surviving at all. Cole concurs. "For Chrysler, we all know that it's not survivable as an independent company. They have to have a merger."
Clearly, lots of eyes are carefully watching the fates of GM and Chrysler, and there's a high level of anxiety in the many communities where the two automakers operate. As Tracy Handler, market analyst for IHS Global Insight, points out, GM has promised to close a number of plants, with specific announcements due soon. "That will change the economy in those areas," she says.
It'll also change the outlook for GM's 1,500 or so parts suppliers, which already are nervous about getting by during the two months that GM plants will be idled this summer. "Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 suppliers are going to be in real trouble," says Handler, "and I'm not sure how some of the suppliers are going to survive." says. Any supplier demise will have an impact on other automakers, too, including the international transplants assembling in the United States. Already, Toyota's North American plants are stocking up on key parts, building up reserves so that they can keep on assembling in the event that a supplier goes belly-up.
Interest in the American Market
"The center of the automotive industry has now shifted away from North America," says de Lorenzo. "The most important market is China, and that's going to be a fundamental adjustment for the American automotive industry, and truly, the American psyche."
On the other hand, Belzowski points out that even today's smaller American market is too big to ignore. "Foreign manufacturers came to the U.S. because it was the largest market in the world," he says. "Right now it's not, but they haven't given up." In fact, he views the Chrysler-Fiat talks as more than just a mechanism for saving Chrysler jobs - it also represents a newfound interest in the American market by a foreign automaker that hasn't been particularly active here for a while.
"As sales return, all of the foreign manufacturers will continue to build vehicles in the United States," says Belzowski. "But when will the other foreign manufacturers - the Indian and Chinese - come to the U.S.?" Probably not in the near term, but Belzowski expects that they'll be knocking on American economic development doors at some point in the future.
Belzowski believes the potential GM spinoff of Saturn presents a real opportunity for a foreign automaker. Whether or not a buyer would want the brand itself, Saturn offers a tremendous distribution network. "It's one of the better distribution networks in the U.S. because it's newer, was designed to be more up-to-date and is a standalone," he says.
Another possibility making its way through
the auto analyst rumor mill is the potential that GM's Spring Hill,
Tennessee, operation might be among the plants slated to be closed.
"There might be an opportunity for another manufacturer to pick up a
plant," says Handler. For example, that plant could be a nice
complement to Volkswagen's new, billion-dollar Chattanooga assembly
operation. Handler says there has been talk that the company's Audi
subsidiary is considering U.S. assembly.
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz has been making plans to expand its assembly
operations in Alabama. The company filed tax abatement requests with
local authorities, proposing a $290 million investment that would
increase the operation's capacity, but has not made further details
available. Plus, GM is said to be in talks with Toyota to determine a
new product that would be produced by the automakers' joint venture,
New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. And GM is trying to stimulate
domestic sales through recent moves by its GMAC Financial Services to
cut borrowing costs and resume making loans to subprime borrowers.
"The Koreans' presence in the U.S. is going to continue to grow," says
de Lorenzo. He is impressed with the gains made by Korean automakers
and expects them to continue to give Toyota and Honda a run for their
money in the American marketplace. In fact, he says, "I can see a point
where Hyundai will add another plant in the U.S. at some point."
Looking to the Future
Will the American industry rebound? According to de Lorenzo, there's
too much talent and too many resources for it not to. While it's
impossible to predict exactly what the industry will look like down the
road, it's a safe bet that technological innovation will be more
important than ever. "Let's not forget that the American automotive
industry is the source of a large chunk of this country's R&D
work," he says.
The government's vision for the salvation of American auto
manufacturing complements its goals for prosperity through energy
innovation, particularly advances in powertrains and batteries. "That
will demand that these companies continue to do R&D," says
Belzowski. "That's where the growth is. Areas that can promote a good
microcosm for R&D for these new technologies will have an
opportunity for some quality jobs."
Already, many communities are searching for ways to put themselves on
the map when it comes to energy-related auto innovation. Texas has in
the past benefited from alliances that built the computer-chip
business, and now is working on similar strategies for getting into
advanced battery manufacturing. Indiana has pulled together its
existing manufacturing and R&D base to launch the Indiana Energy
System Network, an effort to fuel a hotbed of cutting-edge R&D in
advanced transportation and energy systems. Michigan and Kentucky are
seeing a flurry of activity, and so are many other places.
Don't be surprised to see new names jump into the mix - not just
established automakers. For example, Anderson, Indiana-based Bright
Automotive recently unveiled its fleet-oriented IDEA, a 100
mile-per-gallon plug-in hybrid electric. The company has raised
millions of investment dollars and hopes to put its vehicles on the
roads within about three years. "We're going to be seeing a lot of
that," says de Lorenzo. "New enterprises are going to pop up with their
latest take on the technology." The big players are active as well. The
electric Chevy Volt is one of the more talked-about entries, but Toyota
also has some new ideas in the works, including a small hybrid designed
to compete against the Honda Insight hybrid.
"This is a really exciting time, because the government is in support
of this," says Belzowski. "A lot of companies are trying to put their
ideas into physical form. That kind of entrepreneurism will be alive
and well, for alternative powertrain technology in particular."
Layoffs, Then Labor Shortages?
"I think there's going to be a fair amount of skilled labor unemployed
in a lot of parts of this country," says de Lorenzo. Certainly, that's
what the automakers have promised. But even if there's not a flurry of
new automotive plants in the near term, Cole believes that communities
interested in hosting automotive production need to keep preparing for
a future when - believe it or not - there will be a shortage of auto
workers. Waves of retirements remain foreseeable, and tomorrow's auto
jobs aren't going to be filled by just anybody. "It has to be people
with a minimum of a two-year community college [degree]," he says. "If
you don't have that in your community, you're not going to get the
expansion when it happens."
It may seem counterintuitive right now, but Cole says forward-thinking
communities will keep work force issues in mind as the economy sorts
through its problems and potential retirees starting thinking again
about retiring: "What we're really concerned about the most is an
educated work force. The one thing that can really hurt a community is
a lack of an educated work force."