One more thing to consider amid all the financial maneuverings surrounding the Detroit 3 is, if we don’t help these companies survive, what happens to Detroit’s image as the heart and symbol of America’s auto industry?  The question became even more relevant with the election of California Representative Henry Waxman as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, replacing the venerable current chairman, Michigan’s John Dingell. 

This shift in the House may mirror an impending shift in power within the auto industry from the Heartland to the West Coast (where global warming will dominate emission standards) and the South (where transplant factories continue to proliferate).  If the erstwhile Big 3 devolve into the Bottom 3, it will be the foreign transplants who dominate the manufacturing sector and the marketplace from towns like Greer, S.C.; Georgetown, Ky.; West Point, Ga.; Canton, Miss.; and Lincoln, Ala.  Honda’s American operation is headquartered in Torrance, Calif.  Toyota is headquartered in New York City and, though its Michigan operations employ 583, it also employs 107 in California and 36 in Arizona.  Kia and Mazda manage U.S. operations from its base in Irvine, Calif.  Nissan’s new North American headquarters is in Franklin, Tenn.  BMW, with U.S. headquarters in New Jersey, focuses automotive operations on its plant in South Carolina.

It’s clear to see that, in the auto industry, “transplant” refers not just to the implanting of foreign facilities but also to a removal of the industry’s heart, replacing it with economic pumps operating from unfamiliar recesses of our national corpus.

While this redistribution of wheels may be a great boon to communities that have long been overlooked by developers, it would mark the end of Detroit as the magnet for the magnates of the automotive world.  Suppliers would flock to distant parts of the country to be close to their customers, packing up the industry’s top minds to transport them to the hinterlands as well.  We stand to lose the close-knit core of innovators who until now have functioned as a rhythmic heartbeat resounding within the golden triangle of Detroit, Dearborn and Auburn Hills.

The new, scattered focal points are likely to require more duplication of effort, produce less sharing of ideas, and restrict more building out and onto the best futuristic concepts.  The results could be many new ways of approaching automotive challenges—or much more frustration in reaching our future goals.  A very, very different U.S. auto industry indeed.

— Steve Friedman