Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

UMTRI: Broad, sweeping changes needed for U.S. auto industry

As the domestic automobile industry struggles to address the worst financial crisis in its history, a report released Monday by the U-M Transportation Research Institute analyzes critical choices faced by automakers and finds that broad, deep, fast change is necessary for success.

According to the report, “Fixing Detroit: How Far, How Fast, How Fuel Efficient?” successful turnarounds hinge on rapid cultural transformation, which requires replacing management teams. Further, the report finds that the existing culture within the domestic auto companies systematically underestimates the value of fuel economy, which has crippled profitability. 

Modeling the impact of increased fuel economy standards, the study finds that an industrywide mandated increase in fuel economy of 30 percent to 50 percent (from 35 miles per gallon to 40.4 mpg) would increase Detroit automakers’ gross profits by roughly $3 billion per year and increase sales by the equivalent of two large assembly plans.

The chance that increased profits could exceed $6 billion is 18 percent if fuel economy standards were increased to 40.4 mpg, but only 6 percent if standards remain at the mandated 35 mpg.

“Our findings support rapid, wide-reaching change in business models,” says Walter McManus, director of UMTRI’s Automotive Analysis Division and co-author of the report. “The key to a long-term recovery is executing an excellent portfolio of products, and we find that increasing fuel-economy standards will lead to a portfolio of products that is more likely to raise the profits of the Detroit Three automakers than to lower them.”

Rob Kleinbaum, a former General Motors Corp. employee, consultant and co-author of the report, says the industry attitude about fuel economy is symptomatic of its current culture.

“For years it has discounted consumer research results when calculating the benefits of improving fuel economy, often by as much as two-thirds,” he says. “If GM had followed its own market research results over the last three decades, they would not be in Chapter 11 today.”

The report analyzes extensive literature on the successful turnaround of six international companies of comparable size, diversity and distress to the domestic automobile industry. It revealed universal approaches critical to success:

• Implement broad, deep, fast change: All successful efforts addressed the fundamental issues that drove them into crisis and they did it as fast as possible.

• Replace management team: In addition to changes in strategy and structure, in all cases there were widespread changes in management.

• Transform culture:  All of the successful companies considered changing culture a critical requirement and made it a top priority for success.

• Build a portfolio of excellent products: The path to long-term financial health of any company rests on having a great product portfolio. The U.S. auto industry, in its modern incarnation, has never been able to execute an excellent portfolio, only isolated successes.

The report also models the impact of three different increases in fuel-economy standards — 30 percent (35 mpg), 40 percent (37.7 mpg) and 50 percent (40.4 mpg) — on the profitability and sales of the industry and separately for the Detroit Three, the Japan Three, and all others.

The model captures the cost of fuel economy improvement on suppliers, its impact on pricing and the resulting changes in demand. The inputs to the model are the most recent and accepted estimates of all the key parameters, but since there is debate on many of these values, the report conducts an extensive sensitivity analysis on the results.

Results include:

•The Detroit Three gain profits over base in all scenarios, with the largest profits gained from pursuing more aggressive fuel economy.

• Japanese automakers’ profit gains are smaller than the Detroit Three, with the smallest profits gained from pursuing a 50 percent increase (40.4 mpg) in fuel economy.

• At a 50 percent increase, the Japanese industry loses sales while the domestic industry continues to gain in sales and profitability — a result driven by the different starting points.

• There is compelling evidence that the Detroit Three systematically have underestimated the value of fuel economy to customers.

• Because Detroit automakers long have underestimated the consumer value of fuel economy, raising fuel-economy standards will not cost more than consumers would be willing to pay.

• In every scenario, the average cost per vehicle (direct plus indirect) is less than what consumers would be willing to pay.

• There is a 7 percent chance that profits would be less than zero if fuel economy standards were increased to 35 mpg and a 15 percent chance of profit loss if standards were increased to 40.4 mpg.

• Three of the factors had extreme values capable of generating a drop in Detroit Three profits: a gasoline price of $1.50 per gallon (a price not seen since 1999); extremely low consumer response to fuel costs relative to vehicle prices; and direct manufacturing costs (materials and labor) that are more than twice the estimates used by McManus and Kleinbaum and three to four times National Research Council estimates (adjusted for inflation).

The new report builds on studies published by UMTRI beginning in 2005 predicting that the three biggest domestic automakers stood to lose billions in profits and thousands of jobs in the event of an oil spike — a prediction borne out as Hurricane Katrina and tensions around the world sent prices skyward.

The studies documented the financial risks to Detroit automakers and the risks to American jobs of higher fuel prices, and predicted that gas prices more than $3 per gallon could lead to combined losses of $7 billion to $11 billion of profits for Detroit automakers.

By the time gasoline prices spiked to more than $4 a gallon in July of last year, Ford and GM had already reported combined losses on their automotive operations of more than $57.2 billion.

And through the first quarter of this year their cumulative automotive operations losses since 2004 total $83.6 billion. In addition, they have lost 14.2 points of market share since 2004 (GM down 8.8 points and Ford down 5.4 points).