It's hard to get America's most senior auto executives together in the same building to address the same topics, but we managed to do it with Mark Reuss, president of General Motors Co.'s North American operations, and Mark Fields, the newly appointed chief operating officer of Ford Motor Co. Both executives address key issues facing the industry, including the future of in-dash technology, fuel economy, electric cars and the prospects for the industry at large. They don't always agree.
Q: Do vehicle-embedded features such as MyFord Touch or Cadillac CUE make sense when smartphones can do many of the same tasks with fewer glitches? Why not use architecture that allows people to use phone apps for vehicle infotainment?
Reuss: There is no way that the auto industry in the long haul should be carrying all that technology in a car. Phones will move faster in technology than anything we can put into a car. Embedding those functions in a car and then trying to guess where phones are going is not a solution. We will experiment with technology in Cadillac, but that's not where the mainline brands will be going.
Fields: It is very clear that for younger consumers, staying connected in their lives is hugely important whether they are in their bedrooms, walking outside or in their cars. That's why we started Sync and MyFord Touch. In the future, you might end up seeing a hybrid of embedded technology and smartphone connectivity. There are certain things that we want to ensure, such as safety and integration into the rest of the vehicle. There could be some issues with just plugging in a smartphone and allowing it to do a lot of vehicle functions. We're already engaging in those discussions, thinking like a technology company.
Q: What's the deal with electric vehicles? They garnered a lot of attention when automakers started selling them again two years ago, but sales are poor.
Reuss: The range has to grow, and the cost of the battery and the car has to come down. The quickest way for the cost to come down is to build a platform-specific electric vehicle. Otherwise, you will always have a battery that is heavier than what you want and have less range than you want. Our Spark EV will work, because it is already small and lightweight and close to what you want to do in a platform-specific vehicle. We will sell a few thousand, and we are doing it in California, where there already is interest and some infrastructure for electric vehicles. I don't think you will see bigger people-carrier EVs. It's just a harder sell. Who wants to be stranded with your family [because the battery drained down] and pay a lot of money to do it?
Fields: The simple answer is that we don't know what percentage of the marketplace battery-electric vehicles will occupy next year or even five years from now. Our strategy is to align our manufacturing so that wherever it goes, we will be able to flex. Demand for full-electric vehicles depends on a lot of factors, including getting the cost down lower, and the price of fuel and the infrastructure to be able to support mass EVs with charging stations, etc. It is so dynamic right now. With gas at $3.40 a gallon, will sales of EVs bump up appreciably? If gas is $5 a gallon, you would get another answer. Whatever the continuum, we will be able to meet the demand.
Q: What single feature or attribute of a vehicle is the consumer most focused on right now?
Reuss: It is reliability and durability. You can do the styling right, the technology right and the price right. But if you don't have the durability and reliability, you won't get retention. People won't buy your car again. No one wants to be accused of buying something stupid. Fuel economy would be the next reason to buy.
Fields: I think fuel economy is now embedded in people's minds, no matter what the price of oil is. In the 1970s, to get fuel economy you had to get really small, inconvenient vehicles, but now you don't have to compromise on size or performance.
Q: The U.S. auto industry has been one of the better-performing segments of the U.S. economy recently but is still well below the 16 million to 17 million vehicles it once sold regularly. Can it shift to a higher gear?
Reuss: It can happen based on population growth and the car-park age. But sales are throttled by the variance in consumer confidence and in jobs.
Fields: We expect the market to continue to improve. This is a great business — but when you look out on the horizon in North America, do I think we will go back to the days of 18 million units anytime soon? No. But when you look at the components that set demand, I think it is very encouraging. The opportunities and growth in front of us are pretty substantial. The industry is in a place it has never been in before. It has a break-even point of just 11 (million) to 12 million units. (Automakers are expected to sell about 14.5 million vehicles in the U.S. this year.) That's providing profits to invest in good cars, even if we haven't seen that quick sales growth. That's a great place to be.