Innovation key to future of auto industry in Miss.

Published 10:58 pm Saturday, April 17, 2010

The rise of China and India may prove bigger threats to the automotive industry in Mississippi, and the rest of the autobelt South, than the current economic recession.
To stay competitive, the South must continue to be innovative, developing research clusters that will help cultivate the engines of the future, not just produce cars for the present, said Manfred Bischoff, chairman of the Supervisory Board of Daimler AG.
Bischoff was one of the featured speakers during an automotive symposium examining the future of the business, held at Mississippi College’s School of Law on Friday.
Mississippi considers itself part of the Southern Automotive Corridor, which includes neighboring Tennessee and Alabama. The state’s entry into the new manufacturing segment came in 2000 when Nissan built a plant in Canton.
The Asian market threat comes not only from sales — vehicle production will shift to where the sales are — but also from homegrown car companies, which are already springing up to meet that need.
When Japanese automakers first began bringing their cars into Western markets, German car makers laughed them off, Bischoff said. They did the same with Korean automakers.
No one is laughing now.
“The same thing will happen to China as what happened with Japan and Korea,” Bischoff said. “I have no doubt.”
China has also been an innovator in the area of electric car batteries, producing almost exclusively the main component of what may be the future of the industry, Bischoff said. That is because companies there were able to identify the technological advances in other fields and translate them into automotive manufacturing.
“We need to say goodbye to the attitude, ‘If it were good, it would have been invented by us,’” Bischoff said of the auto industry.
Innovation is moving at a much faster rate now than it ever has in the industry’s past and established automakers are trying to figure out how to continue making cars for the present while also making cars for the future.
While competition from emerging markets may affect future production in the state, the current economy is still being blamed for the indefinite delay of production at the Toyota plant in Blue Springs, Miss., in the northeast part of the state near Tupelo. The plant was scheduled to start production this year, but the company put those plans on hold until the car market improves.
“The people of Mississippi have been very patient with us,” said David Copenhaver, Toyota’s vice president in charge the facility.
The project was only briefly discussed during the two-hour long symposium, and no mention was made of the company’s recent production problems with gas pedals, floor mats and brakes, which have led to massive recalls and lawsuits.
Copenhaver said the company still isn’t certain when it would open the plant, which was slated to build the company’s gas-electric hybrid Prius. However, he said officials are certain it will open.
As a sign of things improving, Copenhaver said in March, for the first time, Toyota outsold all other car companies in the American market.
The state is also confident Toyota will open its plant and has continued expanding infrastructure — most notably roads — around it, Gov. Haley Barbour said.
“Toyota will be making cars before MDOT will be able to finish making these roads — though that may not be a relief to anybody,” Barbour joked.
The state is committed to growing its role in the auto manufacturing industry, he said. That comes not just through roads and incentives, but also by building an advanced manufacturing work force complete with engineers and skilled laborers, he said.
“Mississippi has become a state at the center of the autobelt and will continue to play a bigger role in the future,” Barbour said.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox