General Motors Co's departing CEO predicts "one or two global Chinese champions" will begin to snatch market share from American automakers in "20 to 30 years".
"It's only a matter of time," Daniel Akerson told a National Press Club luncheon in discussing the largest US automaker's investment plans and the state of the auto industry.
China, which overtook the US in 2009 to become the world's largest automotive market by sales, does not export any domestically produced vehicles to North America, with the exception of small trucks and off-road vans such the Wuling Minimax which has GM as a major stakeholder. In 2011, Japan's Honda Motor Co began importing its Fit subcompact car into Canada from a plant in China, but there are no plans to supply dealers in the US with Chinese-made Fits.
Akerson, who will step down Jan 15 and be succeeded by product-development chief Mary Barra, was asked at the Washington luncheon how long he thought it would take "Chinese cars, like Japan entering the marketplace 30 years ago, to capture a share here"?
The former telecom executive, who joined GM in 2010 and pushed the company to double sales in China, replied that he doubted China's leaders "feel the need" to export cars to the US, given China's vast domestic market. Chinese consumers are expected to buy 30 million cars annually by 2020.
Although Japan's arrival in the US in the early 1970s changed the industry, Akerson discouraged comparisons with China's emergence as a global automotive giant, saying the economic landscape today is much different than it was 40 years ago.
"In the next 20 to 30 years there will be one or two global Chinese champions who will come out of the domestic market," Akerson told the press club. "It's only a matter of time."
Akerson's prediction was less optimistic than that aired in July by Hong Su, chief engineer at Changan Motors' US research and development site in Plymouth, Michigan, who told China Daily that China was at least five to 10 years away from selling a car that could meet North American emissions and safety rules.
In his speech, Akerson celebrated the end of the US government's ownership of GM and announced it was putting $1.3 billion into plants in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. He warned his colleagues not to slip back into old habits that led the company into bankruptcy, citing employee pension plans that GM allowed to become underfunded, the company's overabundance of vehicle designs and the redundancy that allowed its Chevrolet division to employ more than 70 advertising agencies worldwide.
Last week, the US Treasury Department announced that it sold the last of its shares in GM, pinning the final cost of the taxpayer-led bailout at about $10.5 billion.