Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cheap Shots at Detroit?

In a recent column Tom Friedman blasted the "Big 2.5", re-treading the usual claims: vehicles not suited for the market, poor quality and fuel economy, poor management, and lack of innovation. He pines for an American automobile industry that works like Steve Jobs' Apple.

Let's look under the hood at some of Friedman's arguements:

Vehicles not suited for the market. The market for vehicles is complicated and fickle. It is not dictated by fuel economy alone, despite the recent panic caused by $4-a-gallon gasoline. The market is a convolution of product capability, quality, economy, safety, and style. In the early 1990s Detroit made an excellent decision about the automobile market: the SUV. A vehicle now nearly despised, the SUV met the needs of many consumers. It could carry several passengers (spouse, kids, grandma, dog) or could carry the bulky loads from trips from home improvement stores. Drivers valued the improved road visibility and the feeling of greater safety over a compact car (although "improved safety" was a dubious claim). And consumers were willing to pay the premium that SUVs imposed in fuel costs in order to acquire the benefits from the vehicle. Some of the aspects that attracted consumers to SUVs were shared by light trucks, which also enjoyed robust sales. The profit margin on trucks and SUVs was substantial, which was needed to subsidize the production of economy cars, needed to reach CAFE requirements.

The market decision to produce SUVs was so successful that the Japanese automakers, finding themselves out in the cold on trucks and SUVs, began producing these vehicles for the American market.

American cars have poor quality and fuel economy. The claim that American cars have lower quality is no longer true (for example, see this article), but the myth is now engrained into the media brain. As for fuel economy, American makers offer mid-sized cars with conventional power plants yielding 30+ mpg (highway), such as the Chevy Malibu, Saturn Aura, Pontiac G6, Chrysler Sebring, and Dodge Avenger (with the Ford Fusion at 29 mpg). American SUVs have improved fuel economy (the Chevy HHR with 30+ mpg; the Jeep Patriot and Compass in the high 20s).

Poor Management. Why then didn't the Big Three switch to a majority offering of small, fuel-efficient passenger cars as the price of oil rose? SUVs and trucks were required to offset the loss in making smaller cars - because of the 2:1 labor rate disadvantage that the Big Three have compared to the Japanese North American operations. During the SUV Salad Days, the UAW staked an uncontested claim to the "record profits": it was just a matter of choosing a strike target and getting it. The blithe notion for Detroit to produce a larger number econo-vehicles ignores the fact that they would lose money on every such car, while the Japanese builders would not.

Lack of Innovation. Please - hybrids are a Green Vanity Vehicle: even after six years of operation, a Toyota Prius will not recover its price premium through higher fuel economy. The Chevy Volt is likely to list for $35K, so it is also a Green Vanity Vehicle. For the short term it is more efficient to increase the fuel economy of the gasoline-powered engine than to plunge into a crash program to develop alternate fueled-vehicles. This is Ford's principal strategy for the next few years. One exception may be making the new fleets "flex-fuel", able to use either straight gasoline or 85% alcohol mixtures. The modifications to make most vehicles flex-fuel is quite cheap, a few hundred dollars.

Have Car CEOs be more like Steve Jobs. Lest we not forget Jobs' NeXT Cube: so innovative in hardware and software, yet so catastrophically uncompetitive in the PC market of the early '90s. Jobs has done well since then with consumers that will accept the stiff Apple price premium and its proprietary hardware and formats. There are analogies to Apple in the car industry: Cadillac, Lexus, Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes, and other upscale brands, but to map Jobs' business plan onto car making for the general consumer market is naive.

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