The Coming Chinese Sputnik

Fifty years after the launch of the Sputnik Gal Luft warns that another technological surprise is in the making. "This time the surprise, also coming from a Communist country, will not be in the sky but on the ground. Our next Sputnik is the Chinese automobile soon to roll onto America's roads." "Exhibiting the same hubris that our leaders showed 50 years ago, American automakers still believe that the quality and appeal of their products will defend them against China. To be sure, China still has a way to go before it can produce cars of quality comparable to that of the Big Three. But the quality gap is closing rapidly. China trains four times more engineers than the United States while systematically violating patent laws and replicating technologies. The Chinese allow foreign automakers to operate in their country only through joint ventures with domestic manufacturers. This allows them to learn new manufacturing techniques and to gradually improve the appeal of their products. Chinese cars like Geely and Chery that until recently failed to pass the strict U.S. safety and environmental standards now are close to doing so. It could take as little as a decade for China's auto industry to become competitive with Western manufacturers. Once this happens, ailing Detroit could be on the ropes." But there are also good news: Just like Sputnik unleashed an unprecedented boost of investment in science and engineering education and research so can the "Chinese Sputnik" do to us. "China is now on track to provide our auto and energy sectors with what the Soviets provided our weapons and space industries - a jolt. If a Chinese Sputnik is what's needed to awaken Detroit and Congress to boost investment and speed up the commercialization of vehicles that run on clean and cheap nonpetroleum fuels, then so be it."

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