The New Car Nation

Stephen DeAngelis

April 24, 2007

According to The Economist, the United States was surpassed last by China as the world’s leading producer of automobiles and the Associated Press notes that China is now the globe’s second leading market for automobiles — behind the United States but ahead of Japan. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that carmakers are flocking to China to show their goods [“Automakers Display New Products in China,” by Elaine Kurtenbach, Washington Post, 20 April 2007]. It used to be that the most important auto shows were held in places like Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles. That may be changing:

“Global automakers are putting their hottest new products on display in Shanghai, counting on design, quality and technology to give them an edge against newcomer Chinese car makers in the world’s fastest-growing major market. All the big global names [were] in China’s biggest city … for the Shanghai Auto Show, a biennial event showcasing the one-time bicycle kingdom’s newfound devotion to the motor vehicle.”

The Chrysler Group, which Daimler is apparently looking to unload, is looking to China for salvation [“Chrysler to Sell Dodges in China,” Associated Press, Washington Post, 20 April 2007]. It will make its entry into the Chinese market with two vehicles, a minivan and an SUV.

“Chrysler Group will begin selling two Dodge vehicles in China as the company tries to increase its presence in the world’s fastest-growing automotive market. The company … [announced] that the Caravan minivan would go on sale in China toward the end of this year, and the Caliber small sport utility vehicle would go on sale in the first quarter of 2008. The Caravan will be built in China at Southeast Motor, a Chinese auto manufacturer in Fuzhou, Chrysler said in a statement. Calibers sold in China will be imported from Belvidere, Ill. When the vehicles go on sale, it will be the first time that Dodges have been sold in China since the World War II era, the company said.”

General Motors has been the king of carmakers in China and it is feeling the pressure from other manufacturers, including indigenous Chinese companies. According to Kurtenbach:

“Confronted with an onslaught of competition from both foreign automakers like Toyota and up-and-coming local manufacturers, General Motors Corp. [showed] 41 vehicles in Shanghai, including a hydrogen fuel-cell car and a new version of the classic Buick Riviera developed by its local engineering and design joint venture.”

Most companies are focusing on trying to win market share within China rather than using Chinese manufacturing facilities as a base for exporting automobiles. The same is not true for indigenous Chinese automakers; they are looking to expand to global markets. Kurtenbach reports:

“Meanwhile, China’s biggest domestic automaker, Chery Automobile Co., said Friday it expects its foreign sales to rise by 40 percent this year to 70,000 vehicles as the company tries to establish itself in the global car market. Chery, based in the eastern Chinese city of Wuhu, is the biggest of a group of up-and-coming Chinese automakers that are trying to expand into export markets. Others include Geely Automobile Group Ltd. and Shanghai Automotive Industries Ltd. … China’s automakers exported some 325,000 vehicles last year, about 80 percent of them low-priced trucks and buses bound for developing markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

In a related story, Washington Post staff writer David Brown reports that the increase in the number of automotive vehicles around the world has become a health issue — not because of the pollution they create but because of the “accidents” they are involved in [“Traffic Deaths a Global Scourge, Health Agency Says,” 20 April 2007].

“Traffic injuries are the leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24 around the world — a huge, overlooked and largely preventable public health problem, the World Health Organization said yesterday. In a new report, the organization promoted a long list of suggestions to developing countries, where most of the deaths and disabling injuries occur. The improvements include safer roads and vehicles, better urban planning, helmet laws, prosecution of speeders and drunken drivers, better education of the driving and walking public, and simple interventions such as putting reflective tape on backpacks.”

I put quotations around the word “accidents” because the World Health Organization believes the term is misleading:

“As does most of the public health world, WHO eschews the term ‘traffic accidents.’ In a statement accompanying the report, the organization’s new director-general, Margaret Chan, said that ‘road traffic crashes are not “accidents.” We need to challenge the notion that they are unavoidable.’ About 30 percent of all traffic deaths worldwide — roughly 400,000 each year — are of people younger than 25. Although teenage and young-adult drivers are at greatest risk, younger age groups also have high mortality. In 2002, traffic injuries were the third leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 9, behind pneumonia and AIDS. About 46 percent of traffic deaths in sub-Saharan Africa occurred in that age group that year.”

Lest we think this is only a third world phenomenon, a U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report indicates:

“In 2003, motor vehicle traffic crashes were the leading cause of death [in the U.S.] for the age group 4 through 34. Because of the young lives consumed, motor vehicle traffic crashes ranked third overall in terms of the years of life lost, i.e., the number of remaining years that the person is expected to have lived had they not died, behind only cancer and diseases of the heart.”

Automobiles are here to stay. Their ability to move goods and people efficiently in areas without mass transit systems (and their obvious convenience) makes their continued spread inevitable. They will probably be powered differently in the future, but what won’t change is the nature of the person behind the wheel. Despite efforts to make cars and trucks safer, people still drive them recklessly, especially when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The World Health Organization is correct that the best way to impact drivers (and pedestrians) is to construct safer roads and vehicles, conduct better urban planning, implement helmet laws, prosecute speeders and drunken drivers, and, just as important, provide better education for the driving and walking public.