It's easy to be awed by the surprises and comebacks that this industry delivers. But the world never stands still. Long-term survivors must have one eye on today and another on the future.
Last week's Automotive News Manufacturing Conference certainly provided its sense of awe. It was held in Birmingham, Ala. A decade ago, Alabama was not an automaking state. Now its two makers, Honda and Mercedes-Benz, are in the midst of big expansions. Hyundai is getting ready to punctuate its U.S. comeback with a plant in Montgomery, which is scheduled to be finished next year. And Toyota chose the state for an engine plant.
Another marvel: Nissan. Four years ago, the company was almost dead. Now its rebirth is embodied in the four new vehicles about to be launched in an eight-month span in another unlikely automaking state, Mississippi.
But this industry allows little time for celebration. Nissan and Hyundai have seen tumbles just as dizzying as their current climbs.
The Automotive News Manufacturing Conference gave pause to anyone who thinks that tomorrow's playing field will be the same as today's. What if China someday exports vehicles to the United States with the same zeal that Volkswagen and Toyota and Hyundai displayed? What if this industry's relentless search for low-cost auto parts sends so much overseas that a pillar of this nation's economic strength - workers who make enough to buy a car - is weakened?
And, as Jesse Jackson said at the conference, our minority population is now larger than the total population of some foreign nations to which we pay a great deal more attention. We no longer can afford to have so many citizens so detached from this nation's economic mainstream.
These issues - and countless others - someday will be more than academic. Companies that want to survive and flourish must address them now.