Detroit drives on

By Lauren Duensing

February 2012 - Has your car reached (or surpassed) 10 years of use? If so, you’re not alone. According to a Jan. 18 Associated Press report, car registration data tallied by the Southfield, Mich.-based automotive research firm Polk showed “the average age of a car or truck in the United States reached a record 10.8 years last year as job security and other economic worries kept many people from making big-ticket purchases.”

The report notes the average age of a car has been rising since 1995, hitting a record 10.6 years in 2010 and surpassing that number in 2011.

The amount of older vehicles on the road indicates there’s a fair amount of pent-up demand for automobiles. Last year, auto sales rebounded to 12.8 million vehicles, and the major automakers have begun to increase hiring. Data from both the automakers and Automotive News show, for instance, Chrysler gained 83 percent more sales in December than during the same period in 2010.

Auto sales are headed in the right direction; however, it’s going to take several years to return to normal. According to the AP report, “Polk expects sales around 13.7 million this year, rising by about 1 million per year through 2015, when they reach about 16 million ... approaching the U.S. sales peak of 17 million in 2005.”

Once consumers decide it’s time to replace their vehicles, the cars they buy in 2012 or 2013 will have interiors that look different from the cars they bought in 2002 or 2003. Car buyers are demanding new options as they become accustomed to being in touch constantly through their smartphones and tablet computers.

In his keynote address at the 2012 International CES, Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz cars, commented on connectivity inside a vehicle and how today’s digital lifestyle includes a “digital drive style.”

One major change as a result of the digital lifestyle is how consumers listen to music. Today’s drivers carry thousands of songs in their pocket, and that music is plugged in through a USB cable, not fed into an optical CD drive. As a result, Automotive News reported automakers are eliminating CD players in new cars. John Canali, an analyst for the research company Stratcom, said in the article about 331,000 cars will be sold without CD players by the end of 2012, and he expects that number to jump to 12.1 million vehicles by 2018.

Technology continues to evolve, and automotive’s future is filled with safer, smarter, lighter cars. Embracing new ideas has allowed automakers to emerge from the recession as stronger companies. Detroit has adjusted its thinking, focusing on driving change up front instead of playing catch up after being left in the dust.

This month’s cover story on the new General Motors, “Every penny counts,” page 18, illustrates the new mindset necessary to survive and thrive as an automaker. The industry has realized the drivers of change come from all directions. Companies are bringing suppliers into designs up front and encouraging engineers to figure out the best way to process parts and minimize scrap, downtime and dollars.

Stephanie Jentgen, plant communication manager for GM’s Marion Metal Center and Fort Wayne Assembly, highlights the before-and-after dichotomy, saying that before bankruptcy, the company often thought if things were running well, there was no reason for change. “Now, we’re looking back and saying, ‘OK. Is it the most efficient? Is it the best way?’” she says.

It’s amazing how far automakers have come in such a short time. Rebounding from 30-year lows is a tough task, but with a little cooperation from the economy, embracing change has put Detroit’s automotive industry back on the road to producing world-class cars. MM

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