The Biggest Culprit of Detroit’s Woes: Our Infrastructure

By Jason Lu

11.17.2008

The automotive industry has a special bond with our ground transportation infrastructure. There is a fundamental rule laid out in the bond that makes vehicular transportation what it is today. The rule is that the automobile requires the road. It is by no means the other way around, as the road does not need the automobile. A road could be walked on, biked on, or trodden on by horses drawing carriages, without the need of a car. Luckily, The United States as a whole has established the fundamental basics extremely well, having more than 6,465,799 kilometers (4,017,661 miles) of paved and unpaved roads. The emphasis though, is on the word “basic” and it is this basic-ness that has held and is still holding back our automotive industry. For an automaker to produce desirable driving machines, it must be given the opportunity to extend its connection beyond basic road-building and unite with a prideful infrastructure. If cars require roads, then great cars require great roads.

The only nation that has truly united the car and the road is home to some of the most prestigious automakers in the world. Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi will automatically cause one to think German power. German carmakers are not only the marvels of German engineering, but also the trademark of the legendary German Autobahns, the skies in which the 911 and M5 soar. These stretches of “Free Roads for Free Citizens” are examples of top-notch quality engineering, with features unmatched by foreign highways. General curve radii are massive at more than 10,000 ft, reducing sharp curves for maximum speed and visibility. Pavement thickness averages 85 centimeters (33 inches) in thickness, almost three times that of American highways, allowing it to be durable enough for a 747 jumbo-jet to land on. Strict education, enforcement and lane discipline are the lifelines of Autobahn driving, making German drivers some of the best and the Autobahn one of the safest in the entire world. A major appeal though is that the majority of the Autobahn is without a speed limit, attracting tourists and drivers around the world onto its pavement and offering them a chance to conquer with speed. The unique characteristics of the Autobahn have profound effects on the cars developed around it. The high-end quality and “over-engineering” of the Autobahn boil down to the push for extreme German driving machines designed for German highways.

Autobahns are engineered to be fast, safe, and exhilarating and so are German cars. By setting road infrastructure standards higher than other nations, automakers benchmark higher goals and expectations in their vehicles. For example, the unrestricted speeds drive German automakers to put an emphasis on performance, precision-handling, and other traits that are favored on the Autobahn. Porsches boast top speeds over 200 miles an hour with tenacious handling. Mercedes markets their M-class SUV by highlighting its superiority over foreign competitors, even mentioning that “Most people will never need windshield wipers that perform at Autobahn speeds, but some will”. Volkswagen promoted their cars as “The Autobahn for All,” boasting that they are designed with higher standards than their competitors. The connection between German infrastructure and German automakers has cleverly played out to an advantage for their automotive industry and is essentially the “fruit” of their products. The high-performance image is attractive to buyers. By owning these “Autobahn machines,” the customer can feel pride; a sense that their car is engineered to higher standards with more capabilities and proudness that they own part of the famous roadway. Such high-status and esteemed imagery stem from the Germans’ love of highways, speed, and cars. In fact, there is so much passion revolving around rapid vehicle transportation in Germany that funding for Autobahn speed advocates is equivalent to that of U.S. gun lobbyists. Not only that, but the government alone spends more than $600,000 per mile maintaining the Autobahn. With such respect and dedication for national infrastructure, it is only appropriate that German cars live up to the same standards and enthusiasm.

As for the United States, our automakers have no such pride to live by. Although American highways serve their purpose well by routing us from point A to point B, in large part they are in no way engineering feats to marvel at. They are the usual, basic concrete rivers plowing through our cities. To make matters worse, our infrastructure has suffered such neglect that terms like “falling apart”, “in desperate need of repair”, and “dangerously outdated” have become synonymous with American highways. Even the best of the U.S. Interstate is decades behind its European counterparts, with archaic planning, design, construction, and maintenance. The general public is to blame too, as they are largely ignorant about the quality of our roads, putting their focus only on basic functionality. There is no national pride when it comes to transportation. The result then is that we have nothing special to prove to our competitors and in turn, neither do our automakers.

The lack of high-standard American infrastructure gives U.S. automakers a mindset that there is no reason to push for magnificent machines. U.S. automakers have no keenness about building supercars. The Chevrolet Corvette is there just to prove on paper that we can build a fast car, but it is passionless and soulless, simply because it is not “raised” in an environment where it is expected to exercise its potentials. The current U.S. infrastructure is not built for performance and the Corvette might even disintegrate because of our poor road conditions. The BMW M3 on the other hand can flex its muscles every day at its home, as much as it wants, and pride itself for being built for the Autobahn. If GM were to say that “The Corvette is built for the Interstate”, it means nothing, and perhaps might even signify that it is a hunk of rubbish. On the lower end of the market, the same relationship applies. The Volkswagen Passat stands out in its class and can advertise itself for having the standard performance, fun-factor, and sportiness necessary on the Autobahn. Those are attractive qualities that are far beyond our standards since there are no stretches of U.S. highways where an ordinary American can utilize those features. As a result, the general public will only expect that mainstream American cars like the Malibu are built to the same standards as our roads; functional, but not out of the ordinary and nothing to be proud of.

The effects of poor American infrastructure ripple through the automotive industry with devastation. Without a world-class modern road transportation network, there will be no emotional push for American automakers to strive for the competitive lead. Ford, GM, and Chrysler need a passion to build cars that is more than just the incentive of making money. The passion though must come from the roads where their cars inhabit, but unfortunately for the Big Three, American roads could only be described as carelessly built and uninspiring. The U.S. infrastructure gives no reason for Detroit to take the extra step and reach for a stretch goal. This once-innovative nation doesn’t have a highway that automakers can endeavor to conquer. In the end, Americans cars are as uninspiring as American infrastructure, and that has led Detroit into the tough situation they are in right now. The Detroit Big Three are now gasping for air, not because of the oil crisis or the slowing economy, but because of the lackluster environment in which they were forced to build their cars. The Germans produce driving machines for their highways, and Americans produce driving machines for theirs. But since U.S. highways are second-rate, so will be U.S. cars. The biggest single culprit of Detroit’s woes then can be none other than America’s very own infrastructure.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Jason Lu

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11 Comments

  1. I can see a lot of truth in your premise, Jason, but I disagree that the Corvette is passionless and soul-less. Driving a six-speed manual Corvette (equipped with NPP performance exhaust) back in September with the windows down and a heavy right foot, on more than one occasion, the hair on my neck and arms stood up. It was incredible. The G8 GT, even with an automatic, gave me 8/10ths of that experience too, by the way. Long live the Small Block V8!

  2. There are a lot more reasons than road quality for why American cars are different then Japanese and German cars. Some of the reasons are cultural, some are regulatory, some are economic, etc. While I agree that the difference in road type is one of the reasons, it is overly simplistic to to say it the only reason, or, even the primary reason for the difference in cars.

    The speed limit in Japan on most roads is very low, and the roads are crowded in most places, so that explains the scarcity of high-performance cars out of Japan for decades.

    German roads, as you point out, engender a demand for high-performance cars.

    American roads are quite a mix. If you’ve ever driven out in the Western United States, you know it’s a lot of long straight highway, perfect for high-speed running, and still, we haven’t had cars like BMWs, Audis, etc. until recently, and they’re few and far between (Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Corvette, Pontiac G8, Dodge Viper, Ford Mustang Shelby, etc.).

  3. ^^I live in the western U.S., and even if there are a lot of long straight highway, the speed limit is only 70 mph. The way roads are built reflect very much on how the cars are built. Japanese highways may have slow speed limits, but they are very high quality. That reflects in their cars, which are for the most part well-built and reliable.

    I believe the article is talking about pride. If a country has pride in their infrastructure, its automotive industries will follow. The U.S. does not have much pride, and we’ve neglected our highways for decades. I have yet to drive on a well-maintained highway in L.A., and as you mentioned, we don’t have very many performance cars and they’re not up to par with competitors.

  4. I can mention also the Canadian highways more specially the ones located in Quebec (A-10 between Montreal and Granby gets lots of cracks and potholes in the alspalt and there was the collapse of an overpass on A-19 in Laval), the US highways seems to be well maintened compared to our highways.

    Another factor to add is some NIMBYS against some road projects who resulted of the cancellation of various freeways projects in various cities like San Francisco, Boston, NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Toronto, etc…. like the Bushwick expressway http://www.nycroads.com/roads/bushwick/ the “LOMEX” http://www.nycroads.com/roads/lower-manhattan/
    and the Spadina Expressway http://www.gettorontomoving.ca/spadinaexpy.html The anti-freeway move had probably lead to an anti-car move.

  5. While the Autobahns are wonderful and easy to drive on, there are many more kilometers of narrow, twisting, and perilous country roads in Germany. I’ve seen average American drivers become rolling roadblock once off the Autobahn. Making cars that are fast on the world’s best roads is fine, but making cars that are comfortable and handle well on some goat path in the Bavarian Alps is a far greater challenge.

    Highways and easy-to-drive roads do not make for great cars and they certainly don’t make for good drivers. If they did the world’s best drivers would be from Nebraska and the best cars from Kansas.

  6. I agree with the premise. However, I read somewhere that we could have matched the design and construction standards of the Autobahn –IF– we didn’t have a bigger nation to cover with asphalt. Also, given the transient nature of our politicians, they don’t think much about the future. They will gladly fund something to show that “the pork” is coming back home, but they give little consideration to funding ongoing maintenance and upgrades.

    Maybe there’s also a cultural aspect. Germans are stereotyped about their engineeering prowess –and all stereotypes have a kernel of truth in them– and Americans have been stereotyped as a throwaway society. Maybe all of this is absolutely true.

  7. Wow lots of different opinions on this, I love it! So what I am really trying to say here (it might be vague in the article) is that if we as a nation as a whole had more pride for our transportation, we would be able to have more pride in how we build our cars. If we had a road that we can be proud of, then almost certainly we would desire machines that will aim at taking advantage of that road. Our infrastructure reflects the amount of pride we have on our transportation, and by the looks of it now, there isn’t a lot of pride. Michigan has also been said to have some of the worst roads in the U.S., which is ironic because all of our carmakers are based there.

  8. maybe we might have another big culprit to spot, I saw this one on Autoweek
    http://www.autoweek.com/article/20081114/FREE/811149976
    I quoted the interesting parts
    For whatever reasons you want to posit, Detroit is unique in the world in terms of its relationship to the national government and politicians. There is an air of hostility between them. This isn’t the case between Berlin and Volkswagen, between Tokyo and Toyota, between Paris and Renault. You can’t imagine any one of those capitals standing by and not only watching, but even chortling and cheerleading, as its nation’s biggest carmakers go down the drain

    I also quoted 2 posters who replied to this article
    KOG wrote
    Detroit’s problems are in Washington. There are three major problems:

    1. Monopoly Unions which have the power to bargian against the entire industry. Monopoly control of capital is evil. Monopoly control of labor is evil. Labor law must be changed, and not in the direction the Democrats are going by extending the present monopoly. Germany, Japan, China, South Korea and India are major winners in this game. We lose.

    2. Tax law. Our present tax system double taxes U.S. business which export into countries with a sales tax (VAT) while giving companies from those countries a tax free access to our market. Japan, Germany, India, S. Korea, China and others are major winners in this game, we’re the loser. We must replace our income tax (production tax) with a sales tax (consumption tax) in order to level this playing field.

    3. Trade restrictions. We allow other countries free access to our markets, they protect theirs. Take Japan as an example. We should treat imports from Japan the exact same way they treat exports from the U.S. Every vehicle must be individually inspected to ensure that it meets U.S. standards before it can be sold here. That shouldn’t cost more ($3-4000 each) or take more time (6-8 weeks) for inspection than it does in Japan.

    Just do these three simple little things to actually proved a “level playing field” and a “government bailout” (which is aimed at paying off the UAW with cash from the taxpayers) won’t be needed. The U.S. retains to potential to be the most productive,most competitive business environment in the world. But even here business can’t survive laws which make it impossible to compete..

    yamahr1 wrote:
    It pains me to see the Big 3 have to go begging the U.S. government for the kind of support they should have had all along, like the Japanese industry enjoys (rather than the adversarial relationship they’ve had ever since “Unsafe at Any Speed”), but these are the insane times we live in.

    and something ironic was then the “master builder” Robert Moses, when he was the main architect for the constructions of NYC parkways was a anti-speeding guy from what I saw on Google groups http://groups.google.com/group/misc.transport.road/browse_thread/thread/478874e75f6f4f8e/c9b9f3aa08757e19

  9. Ughh using speed as another factor of death. It’s not speed that kills. It’s poor driving skills. Or you could put it Jeremy Clarkson’s way, “Speed doesn’t kill! Suddenly becoming stationary – that’s the killer!”

  10. Still US motorways are much better that Autostradas in Eastern Europe. Eastern European countries also do not have national autoindustry (including superpower like Russia). They rely instead on transplants that make cars designed in developed industrial countries like Germany, France, Japan and Korea.

    America – join the club! America is moving from being first class industrial superpower in the past to third world status with corrupted goverment importing almost everything from places where people actally work productively.

  11. Not absolutely sure I’m with you on the ‘the roads’ premise.

    Australia may not have much of a car industry compared to US, Japan and Europe but we have probably the most diverse car market in the world with something like 70 brands available.

    Our roads are epic & legendary in terms of the quality – as lack thereof. Couple that with some quite draconian (but confused) speeding laws & fines and an almost total absence of facilities to go a play ‘fast cars’ safely and it is a wonder any Australian buys anything more exciting than basic four pot auto hatchback.

    And yet….the mass market cars we design and manufacture here are actually dynamically quite good. Ford Falcon & Holden Commodore. Good enough to be exported especially to Middle East and US….and to get good reviews (eg Pontiac G8)

    Sure we don’t build many super sports cars – yet they are here – HSV & FPV (hipo versions of the Commodore & Falcon), Elfin, Bolwell, Bufori…

    Whilst perhaps not quite the equal of some of their Euro brethren….I’d not put this down to ‘the roads’ rather I would put this down to the virtual absence of R&D dollars compared to the Euros…even most of the Amercian cars.

    I mean the FG Falcon cost 1.8 billion Oz dollars to create (mind you thats for a car that’ll sell no more 50,000 units per annum) and the basis of the Pontiac G8 was not much cheaper…but it was cheaper.

    HSV & FPV developmental budgets are measured in the tens of millions. Elfin & Bolwell simply in the millions.

    These budgets are tiny compared to those in Europe and the US….even on a per car basis.

    Perhaps you should also consider home market R&D expenditure….not just ‘the roads’

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