- U.S. auto manufacturing has been in a downward trend since the 1970s
- Overseas competitors have gradually eroded the market share of America’s Big Three
- Recent events like the global chip shortage present further setbacks
U.S. Car Production Falls to a New Low
Germany may have been the birthplace of the automobile, but it was America that developed the methods for mass production.
Created in 1913, Henry Ford’s assembly line greatly reduced the time it took to build a car. This also made cars more affordable, and America’s automotive industry quickly became the largest in the world. As we can see in the chart above, this dominance wouldn’t last forever.
Here are some reasons for why the U.S. produces a fraction of the cars it used to.
America’s Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler*) have been unable to defend their market share from overseas competitors. The following table shows how Honda and Toyota were able to break into the U.S. market over a span of just five decades.
Total Market Share
*Chrysler is now a part of Stellantis N.V., a multinational corporation.
The 1970s presented an incredible opportunity for Honda and Toyota, which at the time were known for producing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.
First was the Clean Air Act of 1970, which imposed limits on the amount of emissions a car could produce. Then came the 1979 oil embargo, which caused a massive spike in gasoline prices.
As consumers switched to smaller cars, American brands struggled to compete. For example, the flawed design of the Ford Pinto (Ford’s first subcompact car) was exposed in 1972 after one exploded in a rear-end collision. The ensuing lawsuit, Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company, undoubtedly left a stain on the automaker’s reputation.
Production Moves to Mexico
2018 was a controversial year for GM as it came under fire by the Trump administration for closing four of its U.S. plants. That same year, GM became Mexico’s biggest automaker.
The decision to outsource is well-founded from a business standpoint. Mexico offers cheaper labor, lower taxes, and close proximity for logistics. Altogether, these benefits add up to roughly $1,200 in savings per car.
It’s important to note that GM isn’t alone in this decision. BMW, Ford, and many others have also invested in Mexico to produce cars destined for the United States.
Shifts in the Market
There are other, less obvious factors to consider too.
Modern cars are much more reliable, meaning Americans don’t need to purchase a new one as often. 2020 marks four consecutive years of increase for the average vehicle age in the U.S., which now sits at 12 years old.
“In the mid-’90s, 100,000 miles was about all you would get out of a vehicle. Now, at a 100,000 miles a vehicle is just getting broken in.”
– TODD CAMPAU, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, IHS MARKIT
Rising car prices could also be playing a part. The average price of a new car was $41,000 as of July 2021, up from around $35,700 in May 2018.
Can U.S. Car Production Make a Comeback?
Recent events are a grim reminder of the direction U.S. car production is heading.
As part of its plant closures, GM shuttered its Lordstown facility in 2019. This broke a 2008 agreement in which GM pledged to keep 3,700 employees at the location through 2028. The company had received over $60 million in tax credits as part of this deal, and $28 million was ordered to be paid back.
COVID-19 has presented further issues, such as the ongoing chip shortage which has impacted the production of more than 1 million U.S.-made vehicles.
Not all hope is lost, however.
Tesla now employs over 70,000 Americans across its production facilities in California, Nevada, New York, and soon, Texas. The company is joined by Lucid Motors and Rivian, two entrants into the EV industry that have both opened U.S. plants in 2021.