Deadroit Show

How does one write ‘NAIAS’ in Mandarin, asks Jayesh Jagasia

What unprecedented times these are. We’ve got to be fortunate and unfortunate at once, to be witnessing times like these.

Hallowed institutions that have weathered through decades (and in case, the odd century) of prosperity and depression; wars – hot, cold and the occasional pointless one; famines and floods; accounting scandals, bribery scandals and sex scandals, are falling by the dozen. Some others, long derided as not being the ‘real thing’ are on the up. From the basement, to the Main Floor. And that makes January’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) at Detroit most significant.

The old faithfuls are out. Eight major automakers have pulled out of the Detroit Auto Show. Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, Suzuki are out. Ferrari, Land Rover, Porsche and Rolls-Royce, apparently, have discovered that conspicuous consumption is not as inelastic as it is made out to be. Detroit is feeling the heat. In the middle of the winter.

The Chinese, meanwhile, are coming.

‘The Chinese are coming,’ as an expression, has witnessed quite a range of emotions. Not many years back, it accompanied by much mocking and sniggering all around. Soon the sniggering changed ever so slightly to a curious mix of uneasy apprehension that hid behind a hollow mask of fake bravado. Next, the mask was gone. The apprehension has, since, turned to fear and the expression is now uttered with some stuttering and much quivering.

The Chinese, then, are coming. To Detroit. To the heart of Motown. To hit where it hurts the most. On the Main Floor. BYD Auto and Brilliance Auto will be on the Main Floor at the Cobo Centre at the NAIAS in January 2009.

Much burping after consumption of humble pie is likely to ensue.

These are terrible times for the industry, and I do not know what the Chinese can do that the Americans, the Japanese, the Europeans and the Koreans (notice how quickly the Koreans have added themselves to the fabled club) cannot. It does not seem likely that they will conjure up a vastly more affordable or desirable car. Or that their doubtlessly bright scientists will stumble upon some alternate-propulsion secret in their laboratories.

I am afraid of giving it more thought, but I have.

They might not really know how to develop a car. Or even sell one to a sophisticated, demanding customer. But they know how to build cars. Cheap, fast and with the right emphasis on quality and reliability. They’ve done it for years now, for BMW and Volkswagen and GM. In the world’s second-largest automobile market.

Perhaps that is what the market needs right now. A cheap, simple, efficient, reliable car. Not new-fangled hybrid technology. Or more inexplicably, wireless Internet in the car.

If the automobile industry is as much about ‘mind games,’ as it is about ‘game theory’; if it is as much about emotion as it is about numbers, then the Chinese have won themselves a handy war on the Big Three’s home turf.

Who knows what will happen a month from now. There might be no GM, no Chrysler and no Ford. Hummer could be Hindustani, and Corvette could be Chinese.

These are unprecedented times, after all. And no one knows how unprecedented they are.

Jayesh Jagasia was an automobile journalist before he inexplicably gave it up and decided to go to IIM Kozhikode for an MBA. He has since graduated, but continues to dream about cars all day, and feels strongly about all things automotive. He can be reached on jayeshj@gmail.com

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