The historic bankruptcy of General Motors Corp. has set off a seismic wave of activity in the auto industry that promises to reshape the manufacturing landscape. During the last few weeks, some intriguing new players have emerged.
They range from old, familiar names, such as Magna International Inc. (the new owner of Opel and Vauxhall) and Penske Corp. (the new owner of the Saturn brand, which plans to use contract manufacturers to assemble its vehicles) to new names such as Koenigsegg Automotive (the new owner of Saab) and Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co. (the new owner of Hummer).
Elsewhere, many other companies are jockeying for position. Who knows what will happen next. Perhaps Fiat-Chrysler will merge with PSA Peugeot-Citroen. Or, maybe an Arab sheik will purchase Porsche. I expect to see a Chinese or Indian automaker establish a manufacturing beachhead in the United States by purchasing a mothballed GM plant. I also have a hunch that GM may end up stronger than ever just a few years down the road.
I recently asked David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research (Ann Arbor, MI), to help me put things in perspective. Cole, a veteran observer of auto industry trends, has seen many changes over the years. But, he recently told me, “Never in my life have I seen anything like this.”
Cole’s comment prompted me to think back to the first time that I interviewed him several decades ago. I was a long-haired college student who pedaled an old Schwinn bicycle (which, by the way, was made in hometown, Chicago) to Cole’s office on the North side of the University of Michigan campus (at the time, he was director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation). As we chatted way back then, neither one of us could have imagined the unprecedented set of events that is now quickly reshaping the global auto industry.
At the time, there were four automakers in Detroit and GM still commanded a sizable share of the domestic market. No one was talking about lean manufacturing; robots were expensive and unreliable; battery-powered vehicles were for crackpots; and China was considered a backwater of the automotive world. Well, times (and hair styles) sure have changed.
Believe it or not, Cole thinks the auto industry will survive all the recent turmoil. While the near-term prospects are bleak, he’s bullish on the future for the following reasons:
- The number of new households is growing at a rate of more than 1 million a year.
- More than 13 million vehicles are being scrapped annually.
- Production capacity in the U.S. is being reduced by more than 4 million units.
- The Big 3 will soon have wage and benefit parity with their overseas competitors.
- The break-even volume is being lowered dramatically to about 10 million vehicles.
- There is still no competitor for the mobility function that cars and trucks provide.
- We are nearing the end of the “buyer’s market” that has lasted for more than 10 years. According to Cole, incentives and rebates will soon go the way of hubcaps and hood ornaments.