Automakers in the U.S. are wrapping up what could be their best sales year
yet in dollar volume--and sixth best in the number of cars and light trucks
sold. Clearly, an industry that was on the ropes a decade ago has made enormous
strides. Productivity gains have been very impressive, particularly when it
comes to design. Taking a page from Boeing's 777 project, Chrysler's new Digital
Manufacturing Process System, developed by Dassault Systemes, enables the
company to design new cars and the manufacturing process entirely by computer.
Result: Chrysler could trim 10 weeks from the 30 to 36 months it takes to create
a new model. That means many millions in cost savings and a marketing advantage.
Early reviews indicate that Ford--under the direction of design king Jack Telnack--has successfully resculpted one of the most popular cars ever, the Taurus. Year after year, it's the model cited most often by Design News readers as "the car I'd buy tomorrow." Chrysler, facing threats from competitors to its strong position in the minivan and sport utility lines, has come up with a new weapon--the solid-performing, eye-catching Sebring convertible (our cover story). This new entry is sure to fuel sales of ragtops, which began rising again last year after slumping in 1992 and 1993.
Meanwhile, such flagship American luxury models as the Lincoln Continental, Chrysler New Yorker, Olds Aurora, and Cadillac SLS are taking advantage of the weaker dollar to make gains against luxury imports. The Big Three also have shown unprecedented cooperation in technologies important for their future, including plastics recycling, advanced composites, and development of alternative fuels, such as batteries for electric cars and hybrid systems.
Still, many challenges remain. U.S. automakers--and their suppliers--must develop global strategies for their products. Ford seems to be leading the way with its "Ford 2000 project," designed to generate a parade of new models for regional markets through flexible manufacturing. The new trade pact with Japan also creates fresh opportunities for U.S. exports of cars and parts.
Foreign competitors, of course, aren't standing still. Mercedes Benz recently beat out Ford and Chrysler to become a partner in a new $1 billion minivan plant in China. And despite great progress by U.S. companies, surveys show that the Germans and the Japanese still have the edge when it comes to auto quality.
But this is just the broad picture. A careful reading of our annual auto issue will give you many concrete examples of technologies that have brought new excitement to Detroit.