In all the many (how many) years I worked as an engineer in and around the auto industry, I got to compare conditions in Europe, Japan and America. Yet in many ways the American situation was perhaps the most tragic – the most potential, most eagerly squandered. It’s not Americans who are flawed, but the business model imposed from the top.
For example, I do not believe American engineers are inferior to those working elsewhere. It’s just the way their inputs are handled. Toyota and Honda have long-term viable plans that forecast many years down the road. This gives engineers a clear direction.
On the other hand, Detroit's automakers, as well as some European ones, tend to look at short-term gains in order to satisfy shareholders. GM's big problems were due to planning short-term while sacrificing the farm down the road.
GM became too big. They had too many brands and too many models. Alfred P. Sloan created all these brands in order to counter Henry Ford, but also to provide various products for people at all economic levels. These internal GM brands were to compete against one another as well as outside companies. What Sloan did not realize is how this internal competition would impact the engineers who develop products and the marketing staff who have to sell them.
Of course some of the problem had to do with the power and influence many of GM's shareholders had over the board as well as the CEO. These shareholders wanted their cut and they wanted things done their way. For years, it all came down to satisfying the shareholders at the expense of GM's long-term reputation. To this day, I know people who will not buy a GM product simply because they had a poorly made Pontiac back in 1983.
Keep in mind, buying a car is a HUGE purchase for just about anyone. This cannot be compared to purchasing a ticket on a bankrupt airliner or buying a golf club from a defunct golf manufacturer. Americans today have long memories when it comes to vehicle purchases. Yet, these are the same Americans who demand instant gratification and who trample people at stores on Black Friday in order to save an extra $12.00 on a Chinese-made sweater.
But my biggest complaint has to do with the wasting of great talent. There is a popular myth that American engineers are lazier or more stupid than their Asian and European counterparts. I highly disagree with this notion. There may well be different cultural values, but that does not define a worker's skill set or determination. American engineers are simply more independent in their thinking than their Japanese and European counterparts. Independently-thinking renegades will create nothing but extra trouble for a platform design team.
This is system that American engineers and designers are placed into once they graduate from college. It's a cultural "machine" if you will. In Japan, Toyota's engineers become "one" with the company and they simply work as one machine. There is no "I" in Toyota's system – or in Japan's industrial marketplace for that matter. Unfortunately, at GM people appeared to be hell-bent on receiving singular credit for their accomplishments.
Please understand that the Japanese people are not a diverse bunch. They are known in the automotive industry for improving upon established ideas, designs and systems. The Japanese, however, are not known to create something from the ground up like their American counterparts. American engineers take more risks, since they want to be rewarded. The Japanese simply create and work for the common good of their employer.
Toyota is a company that is known for its stubborn planning and ways. They take their time and do things right the first time. This is the Toyota way – most of the time.
But this is not always the case. Toyota got derailed with their Avalon model. This car has been nothing but trouble from the drawing board to the production line. It is a piece of garbage.
Why is it so bad? Maybe it is because this time they followed the flawed American model. Toyota rushed it because it saw the potential for a quick profit. They did not take their time to think things through. They simply used the American business model for a short-term gain and it failed them.
In contrast, GM took its time to develop the new Malibu, and Ford used over 1100 engineers to develop the new F150. The Malibu is better than anything Toyota has right now. How do I know? I drive a Camry and I compared it to the Malibu.
Interestingly enough, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz had personal input into the Malibu's development. That is the MAJOR divergence from traditional platform development in the past. Engineers and designers received personal hands-on feedback from a car-guy at the top, not some bean counter. I am sure they felt invigorated to hear his thoughts from him rather than receiving them in a fluff letter typed by a secretary.
Back to Michigan?
Up until the late 90s, many in Michigan simply did not value a college education. Many were simply cushioned by the fact that they could graduate high school and get a job on the assembly line. I fear that this attitude towards college will grow in the southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama. Many down there are starting to have the "I'll be fine" attitude that many in Michigan once had.
But the future in Michigan may be brighter than many suppose. Southeast Michigan will remain a research and development powerhouse well into the future. Many of Detroit's auto engineers and related companies can easily adapt (technically speaking) to alternative technologies such as wind, solar, and new materials. Never underestimate the amount of brainpower in Detroit. Prior to my stint in Detroit, I was under the impression that every Big Three employee was a lazy slouch. My ignorant attitude was squashed pretty damn quickly once I started working with them.
So here’s a bright point for the future. You will see more technical industries branching off from the auto industry. Companies like Dow are already taking advantage of Metro Detroit's diverse and increasingly well-educated Arab population. I see a future in Michigan revolving around chemicals, green energy, transportation and international trade in general.
But the car industry won’t go away either. Toyota, for example, decided to keep its R&D operation in Michigan rather than relocate to Alabama. There was simply no incentive for Toyota to migrate its brainpower to the South. Right now – although this may change – the auto industry in the south is incomplete since they lack the planning and design processes needed.
With or without a bailout, the Big Three as we have known them will not be the same. One or two could disappear. Others will no doubt shrink. But the intelligence that exists within the engineering and industrial talent of Michigan remains. This is what the country should look to save from extinction, not the mediocrities who have ruled from highest management.
Amy Fritz was born in Cambridge, England during World War II. Her mother was a seamstress and her father a pilot with the RAF. Her uncles worked in various capacities within the British automobile industry and her father became an engineer and professor.
After studying engineering at Cambridge, Fritz developed an interest in automobiles and went to work for a now defunct automotive supplier. Her occupation took her to Europe, Asia and North America, where she eventually settled as a technical engineering contractor for various auto-related companies. She is now semi-retired and living in the Denver area.