DETROIT -- General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and the suppliers who depend on them may be suffering.
But these are boom times for companies such as Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai.
Asian carmakers are making dramatic new investments in sophisticated r&d centers that can produce even more vehicle designs attuned to U.S. tastes.
In Detroit's suburbs, they are spending lavishly on spiffy new technical Taj Mahals.
Why Detroit? Because that's where the talent is.
"Southeast Michigan is the richest pool of automotive knowledge, experience and overall talent in North America and perhaps the world," says Lindsay Brooke, senior powertrain analyst for CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills. "So it's a smart place to locate r&d."
And the Asians aren't tightening their belts; they're letting it all hang out.
The role of their tech centers has expanded dramatically as the market share of Asian automakers has increased and as they shift more production to North America.
Already many r&d centers, combined with their North American design facilities, are almost functioning as self-contained car companies.
The tech centers are likely to take even more engineering responsibility for vehicles that are sold in North America, and eventually could include hybrids, diesels and fuel cell vehicles.
And they'll help Asian companies achieve their lofty sales targets - for example, Hyundai's plan to reach U.S. sales of 1 million units by 2010.
The number of r&d employees at the transplants' tech centers grew from 200 in 1987 to more than 3,100 in 2003, according to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.
Nissan, Hyundai and Toyota have just committed hundreds of millions to upgrade their North American tech centers. And all three are adding engineers and support staff.
Nissan spent $80 million last year to add design capacity at its technical center in Farmington Hills, Mich. Hyundai and Toyota are building centers near Ann Arbor, Mich. Hyundai's 168,000-square-foot tech center is expected to cost $117 million. Toyota has set aside $150 million for its facility, which will be built on 690 acres.
Nissan's technical center added 300 jobs in 2004.
The new Honda Ridgeline pickup shows how the role of technical centers operated by transplants has changed.
The Ridgeline uses the same basic skeleton of the Odyssey minivan. To make the structure stiff enough for a truck, Honda engineers working in the company's Marysville, Ohio, r&d center, created a unique frame under the Odyssey's unibody. Hundreds of new body panels and braces were designed and engineered in North America, where the vehicle is assembled.
That could not have happened in the 1980s, when most transplant automakers opened their first technical or r&d centers here.
Back then, the mission of transplant tech centers was simple: Engineers focused on keeping their companies abreast of changing U.S. emissions regulations and safety rules. And if a defect slipped through to consumers, they would quickly analyze the problem, report to the factory and maybe help engineer a fix.
Now, using powertrains developed in Japan, they can design, develop and engineer vehicles specific to North America. The Nissan Titan pickup, made in Canton, Miss., is such a vehicle.
The r&d on powertrains, technology and vehicle architectures still is done in Japan and Korea. But the North American research and development centers are responsible for sourcing parts from local suppliers. They also work with those suppliers to create components and adapt technology developed overseas for vehicles produced and sold here.
"It's not that different from the domestics," says Bob Sump, vice president Nissan Technical Center North America in Farmington Hills. "They have their own area within the company that does the research and development and advanced planning. And when they are done, that work gets handed off to the engineering sections that are handling the new and current models.
"We are basically following that same kind of philosophy. The only difference is that instead of that research being in the building right next store, it's being done in Japan. Once that technology is proven out, it becomes something the company as a whole uses, and we are expected to be part of it."
Bruce Brownlee, Toyota's general manager of corporate planning and external affairs, cited the development of the 2005 Toyota Avalon.
"The platform and drivetrain were developed in Japan," Brownlee says. "But everything you can touch and see and come into contact with, we are responsible for that."
You may e-mail Richard Truett at [email protected]