(4 of 4)
Using the industry metric, which estimates that about three-quarters of current sales are replacement vehicles, demand will push past 13 million cars by 2012. O.K., so assume that some people will drive less, run their cars into the ground or gulp give up driving. You still don't lose much. What's known in the industry as "density" the ratio of vehicles to drivers continues to increase.
That's particularly important because the number of drivers is increasing. The U.S. population is advancing at a clip of 1% per year. But more important, the baby-boom echo is getting its wheels. Between immigration and the offspring of boomers now asking for the car keys, at least 2 million new drivers are entering the market every year. That invariably adds to demand.
Lastly, the auto demand curve is a leading indicator out of a recession. Any GDP growth will correlate directly with auto sales until growth reaches 4%. At that point, sales growth then turbocharges to about 7%, if the past is any measure. Analysts insist that when you combine the replacement demand, scrappage rates, demographic changes and an economic recovery, there's a case to be made that North American demand will approach 16 million units within five years. "We haven't seen this kind of positive force in replacement demand for this amount for a while," says the auto economist. And thanks to growing overseas markets like China and Russia, where GM is well positioned, industry growth outside the U.S. will be even greater.
It's even possible, despite the current bleakness, that car sales will return to an upward trend this year. The prices of some used cars are beginning to rise as supplies tighten, which makes new cars a more attractive deal. Any improvement in the homebuilding industry bodes well for light-truck sales. And if Congress passes a proposed cash-for-clunker bill that would give car owners a $3,000-to-$5,000 voucher to trash their old vehicles and buy something new and shiny, dealers will move the metal, as they have done already in Europe.
Down the Road
Anyone who is in business in 2012 will get business. For all their problems, there's no question that the Detroit Three will have some competitive cars. GM has already made the case with its award-winning Chevy Malibu. The 2009 Buick LaCrosse recently topped all midsize competitors in the dependability ratings of J.D. Power & Associates. That's a positive sign, given that Buick is such an important brand for GM in China. Ford, which is in the best shape of the Detroit Three, has found success in its new Edge, in its F-150 pickup and in a global restructuring that will bring the best products from its overseas operations to the U.S. If there are new labor contracts in place, the domestic automakers also stand to be cost-competitive with the transplants, which will translate to more profit per car, even if selling smaller cars means fewer sales dollars.
A downsized, revitalized U.S. car industry will still be playing catch-up. Millions of car buyers won't consider U.S. brands for some time to come; the perception that they are inferior lingers long beyond the reality that they are not. And foreign competition may increase: companies in Asia, such as China's Chery Automobile and India's Tata Motors, could plant their flags here. Established players like Volkswagen and Hyundai-Kia have plans to build plants in the U.S. by 2012. Which means the sales rate will be exceeded by manufacturing capacity, as it always is.
Either way, the car-buyng public is the winner: consumers will see better-built, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks gas-powered, electrics and hybrids that will meet their every desire. Obama's challenge is to make sure some of them come from Detroit.
With reporting by Massimo Calabresi / Washington
The original version of this story failed to note that John Paul MacDuffie is co-director of the International Motor Vehicle Program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.