The Biggest Culprit of Detroit’s Woes: Our Infrastructure
By Jason Lu
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.
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