The Future of the Auto Industry: A Panel Discussion

As part of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) Annual Conference at Deutsche Bank, a panel discussion was held titled titled “The Future of the Auto Industry.” Taking place on a rainy Tuesday, October 23, in New York City’s financial district, the panel featured six executives from automotive manufacturers: Jonathan Browning, President and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America; Hans-Ulrich Engel, Member of the Board of Executive Directors, CFO, BASF SE; Martin Jäger, Vice President, Head of Global External Affairs and Public Policy, Daimler AG; Timothy Manganello, Chairman and CEO, BorgWarner Inc.; Rodney O’Neal, President and CEO, Delphi; John Plant, Chairman, President and CEO, TRW Automotive, and moderated by Rod Lache, Deutsche Bank Auto Manufacturing Equity Research Analyst. It was a great opportunity to hear some candid, pointed opinions on the auto industry from the executives of these very successful companies.

Panelists agreed that there is excess capacity. Tim Manganello started off by saying that for a healthy automotive sector, (OEMs) are going to have to figure out how to restructure and close plants. There’s “far too much capacity chasing far too few customers,” said Rodney O’Neal. “Any one OE can’t do well without the others doing well,” and added that Europe is currently a negative environment, with growth at only 3-4%. Yet, that still is growth in a cyclical industry.

The importance of quality products and technologies was stressed by all; a manufacturer can massively restructure, but in the end, the market response is key. Browning weighed in on the importance of strong products; well managed brands is what the industry is all about. “Managing brands is not a sales and marketing exercise… The heartbeat of a company is the heartbeat of an engineering company.” Manganello pointed out that the companies represented on the panel are all successful because of this leading technology.

A lot was said in response to the question of where they all see the most interesting opportunities for growth. In terms of products, the short answer was technology: connectivity and safety. Geographically? Asia – more specifically, China. “If you want to be successful today, you have to be in China. It’s not an emerging market, it is emerged,” stated Rodney O’Neal. The tech has to be different and exciting, and an OEM’s global presence must include China. Browning had a slightly broader view: “ The U.S. market has recovered to some degree,” but going on to say this it’s fairly inconsistent, “choppy,” and not risk-free. While China, India and Brazil are growth regions, the U.S. is still a “substantial part of the financial jigsaw.” John Plant advised that the question is answered by the actions of the companies; there are new plants in China, India, and Mexico. About China, Manganello said the Chinese want to own technology, but their companies aren’t “ready for prime time” – which is why they are so interested in distressed companies such as Saab; they can buy the name and the tech.

When the subject turned to the future of electric vehicles and alternative fuel technologies, however, some on the panel were not quite so jovial. It’s accepted by the OEMs that regulations are necessary and improving fuel economy coupled with lowering emissions is a growth area largely because of these regulations. Browning diplomatically said that it’s been slow in terms of customer acceptance. O’Neal didn’t mince words and said that the marketplace has spoken… and it’s capital carnage. “Consumers are not wanting to buy a car that’s a lot more expensive,” said Jäger. EV’s will improve over time, but it will be a gradual improvement.

To summarize – there will be hard decisions to be made in Europe regarding manufacturing, and to a lesser extent, in North America, but there will be growth for savvy, well-oiled, global companies with quality products.


  1. says

    I think one of the biggest issues will be the self-driving cars now being tested in Nevada and California. Assuming self-driving cars take-off, and I think they will, what does that do to branding? At a minimum, it will shift the conversation and the interior of the vehicle will become the most important distinguishing factor, and the exterior may become a commodity.

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