Designers abroad spur trend to 'world auto'

The European and Japanese auto industries are on the verge of massive changes in the years ahead. Indeed, they will spend many billions of dollars in the 1980s as they go down the same road already explored by the US carmakers over the last 10 to 15 years, according to an Arthur D. Little impact study that looks at the world automotive industry through the year 2000.

In other words, the study says, the Europeans as well as the Japanese are embarking on a new era of total redesign of the cars they build.

Carmakers in Europe and Japan that are already turning out fuel-efficient vehicles will be required to increase fuel economy even further, while meeting the ever-toughening environmental and safety standards of the countries in which the vehicles are built and sold.

"Increasing concern among European countries about fuel economy, the environment, and safety is leading to laws and standards abroad which are similar to those which now exist in the US," asserts Donald A. Hurter, a technology expert who directed the study.

"This, in turn, will result in world markets -- and the products and designs of the manufacturers serving them -- becoming more homogeneous."

And as the same cars are built in more and more countries of the world, the era of the truly world automobile will have arrived.Many of the environmental and safety requirements will be the same, or similar, which will make it easier and less expensive to meet the demand of the marketplace.

The Volkswagen Rabbit has been built in Pennsylvania since 1978, and now the West German company is planning a second US assembly plant. Honda will set up an assembly plant in Ohio over the next couple of years. Toyota and Datsun, both under heavy US pressure, are sure to follow suit if they want to hold on to their large US market.

Renault will build cars in the United States, starting in 1982, as part of its wideranging agreement with American Motors. And Chrysler and PSA Peugeot-Citroen may team up with a car-assembly operation in the US.

General Motors and Ford already have numerous automotive operations all over the world and ultimately may even crack open the Japanese market. Even GM and Chrysler now have a financial stake in Japanese car companies, GM in Isuzu and Chrysler in Mitsubishi. Ford has an interest in Toyo Kogyo, which builds vehicles under the Mazda nameplate, as well as a big stake in a Japanese transmission-building company.

The Arthur D. Little impact study sees a huge growth in world passenger-car sales -- to 48 million by the turn of the century, an increase that averages 2 percent a year over 1978's 31 million. Growth of automobile sales in the US, West Germany, France, Italy, Britain, and Japan, which now account for about 70 percent of the total world auto market, is expected to increase more slowly than the world rate.

The US auto industry is expected to grow at less than 1 percent a year for the next two decades.

Imports, which were running at about 27 percent of total car sales in the US in February, are expected to fall to about 10 percent of the auto market by 1990 , according to the study. Competition from the domestic auto companies is seen as the main reason.

Consumer demand for more fuel-efficient cars has pushed the domestic makers into the fight, a field overwhelmed by the imports for many years. Detroit now has a large fleet of cars that are fuel-efficient and designed to meet American tastes and sensibilities in personal transportation.

The trend is expected to continue to the end of the century and beyond.

US demographics and social values are also changing. The trend to smaller families, two-income families, increased suburban living, and a more affluent population will continue to favor a shift toward the smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, the study says.

People will want cars that satisfy a desire for personal mobility but, at the same time, meet the need for energy conservation.

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