Detroit braces itself for Donald Trump's confrontational tweets as auto show opens

 Visitors looking at the 2018 GMC Terrain Denali during its unveiling at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan 8, 2017.
Visitors looking at the 2018 GMC Terrain Denali during its unveiling at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan 8, 2017. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

DETROIT (AFP) - The global auto industry on Monday (Jan 9) was bracing itself for more confrontational tweets from President-elect Donald Trump, with the festive Detroit auto show due to kick off here.

As he prepares to take office later this month, Mr Trump has used his Twitter account to take aim at automakers, warning that they may face stiff import tariffs for selling cars made with foreign labour on the US market.

As recently as Thursday, Mr Trump trained his sights on Toyota for building cars in Mexico, after having similarly spotlighted Ford and General Motors.

In what appeared to be a preemptive manoeuvre, Fiat Chrysler announced late on Sunday that it will return manufacture of the Ram heavy-duty truck to the United States from Mexico, while investing US$1 billion (S$1.44 billion) in Michigan and Ohio factories and creating 2,000 jobs.

After having taken on several automakers in succession, the annual celebration of the global auto industry in a state which narrowly voted for Mr Trump in November seems like a very inviting target for the president-elect.

Mr Scott Houldieson, a regional executive with the United Automobile Workers in Chicago, told AFP that Mexican auto workers earned between US$5 and US$8 an hour, versus an average of US$20 for newly hired Ford workers in the US.

At corporate headquarters and in the halls of Detroit hotels where executives have gathered, a pressing question has been whom the president-elect would target next. Have Ford, Toyota and GM weathered the storm?

A representative for one automaker who declined to be named told AFP that keeping close watch on Mr Trump's Twitter account, his favoured means of public address, had become a priority for the company's social media team.

Other manufacturers said they followed a broad spectrum of media.

"We monitor the entire media landscape, including social media, for all news," Volkswagen spokesman Jeannine Ginnivan told AFP.

AFP got a similar reply from a representative for Audi, a Volkswagen AG brand which began producing the new Q5 model in Puebla, Mexico in September. Volkswagen-branded cars are also produced in the country.

The Audi plant, the first for the brand in North America, has a production capacity of 150,000 cars a year and employs as many as 4,200 people.

Fiat Chrysler, which took a US taxpayer bailout in 2009 following the global financial crisis, emphasises its presence in the US.

"Since June 2009, we have announced US$8.4 billion in US-based investments and have added almost 25,000 new US jobs," said spokesman Jodi Tinson.

Mr Trump has harshly criticised the trade policies of previous US presidents, claiming they resulted in millions of job losses in the US. He has also threatened to withdraw from or renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which involves Canada, the US and Mexico.

Under the treaty, if at least 65 per cent of a car's parts have a North American origin, it can be sold duty-free in the region.

Auto manufacturers in the US have seized on this provision to invest in Mexico. Between 1999 and 2013, foreign investments in that country have exceeded US$30 billion, according to the Mexican trade promotion body ProMexico.

The US in the first quarter of 2015 also became the largest importer of Mexican-made cars, according to the Mexican automotive association AMIA.

The largest US car makers have production facilities in Mexico, including companies like Mercedes Benz and BMW, which will begin producing cars there in 2018 and 2019 respectively.