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Detroit Carmakers Look to Expand Reach Across Globe

January 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gwen Ifill looks at how Detroit's "Big Three" carmakers plan to expand into markets such as China.

GWEN IFILL: Micheline Maynard is senior business correspondent for The New York Times, and has written two books about the automotive industry, most recently, “The Selling of the American Economy.” She joins us from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Micki Maynard, welcome.

So, is the boasting all over in Detroit now?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, it’s definitely a more subdued atmosphere, Gwen. I remember auto shows when there were jeeps crashing through plate-glass windows and minivans dropping from the ceiling and lots of dancers and pretty girls and pretty guys, too. But, this year, it was definitely a lower-key atmosphere, as probably is fitting.

GWEN IFILL: So, the Volkswagen dancers didn’t do it for you, I’m thinking?


GWEN IFILL: Perhaps not.

So, has the culture changed forever in Detroit now?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Everybody here is getting their arms around the idea that they will never be as big as they once were. And it’s really easy to see, if you just look at the car sales figures. As the report said, we sold about 10 million vehicles in the United States last year. And people think we will sell about 11 million this year, 11.5 million.

Well, about five years ago, the industry sold 17 million vehicles. So, it’s down 40 percent. So, you look at all the factories that have closed, all the people who have lost their jobs, the brands that have gone away, and you can definitely see that things are a lot smaller here.

GWEN IFILL: Who are the Big Three’s biggest competitors now? Obviously, China is coming up big.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: If you look at it on a global basis, you absolutely would say China.

And I think that’s a huge surprise to a lot of people. I remember, maybe 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, that Volkswagen was actually the biggest brand in China. And then there were joint ventures with other car companies. And now you’re seeing the Chinese market itself sort of breed its own carmakers. In fact, some of them are here at the Detroit show.

I went for a walk on the show floor yesterday. And I walked past Ford. And I walked right into a display for a Chinese company called BYD, or Build Your Dreams. And it was showing its electric car just kitty-corner where — from where Ford would be. A year ago, they would have been in the basement.

GWEN IFILL: So, electric cars and hybrid cars, that’s the future?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, I actually own a Toyota Prius, so I would say, yes, they are the future. But they were certainly front and center at this show in probably a way that we have never seen before, because all of the companies — it wasn’t just the Asians talking about hybrids or the Germans talking about diesel hybrids. It was every single carmaker.

And, in fact, the two vehicles from Ford that won the North American car and truck of the year awards were hybrids. And, honestly, I never thought I would see that happen.

GWEN IFILL: Is Ford the only American company that didn’t take a government — big government aid? Are they feeling kind of smug?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, Ford has always made quite a bit of the fact that they didn’t take a government bailout. And they sort of absented themselves from the whole situation pretty early on.

I think they realized when the CEOs went to Congress and started to get picked on for flying their private planes that it was probably not a good idea to be in line for government money. So, Ford is — seems to be feeling very confident these days. They have got a lot of new vehicles coming. And I think their market share is coming back a little bit. They actually had an improvement last year.

And I’m sure they’re hoping for more of an improvement in 2010.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the CEOs. Both Chrysler and GM have new CEOs. Has that affected their focus, the goals, their — what they set out to do?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: I think people at GM and Chrysler are a little bit shell-shocked, because, if you think about a year ago, they had a CEO named Bob — Bob Nardelli who had actually come from the outside. He had come from Home Depot. But at least they were kind of used to seeing him. He had been there for a little bit over a year.

Now there’s no American or even North American as the CEO at Chrysler. It’s run by the — Fiat, the head of Fiat, who is essentially an unknown figure to people here in Detroit. And, at General Motors, the CEO is Ed Whitacre. And he was the former CEO at AT&T.

The government asked him to come in and be chairman when General Motors got their bailout. And he essentially replaced the CEO at General Motors from last year, Fritz Henderson. And even if you think back to last year’s show, Rick Wagoner was still the CEO at General Motors.

GWEN IFILL: So, bottom line, after this year of government aid and this year of tough times, no more happy talk in Detroit?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, this is always a place that runs on optimism. And I think that hopes and dreams are always part of the DNA in Detroit.

So, people aren’t walking around in hair shirts or anything like that. But it’s a sober atmosphere. And I do think that that’s appropriate, given that two companies went through bankruptcy, we’re still in a deep recession, and we don’t know when we will be climbing out of it.

GWEN IFILL: Micheline Maynard of The New York Times, thanks again for joining us.