The Great Race by Levi Tillemann Book Summary

The Great Race, The Global Quest for the Car of the Future by Levi Tillemann


The internal combustion engine has had its day. The big upheaval won’t happen tomorrow – or even by 2025 – but eventually, the gas pump will be a museum relic and electric cars will be common. In this exhaustively researched, compelling history, auto industry expert Levi Tillemann offers an overview of the field with a focus on how Japanese companies rose to prominence. The author – who learned Japanese and Chinese so he could delve into those nations’ auto industries – details the birth and development of the electric car and explains how its future is likely to unfold. getAbstract recommends his insights and predictions to car lovers, futurists, investors, entrepreneurs, history buffs, gearheads, carmakers, dealers and all drivers.


  • The US and Japan are racing to see whose manufacturers can produce the highest quality, economical, environmentally friendly electric car. China is joining the race.
  • In 1980, Japan became the largest auto exporter to the US, overtaking Germany.
  • Honda and Toyota’s efficiency and quality took market share away from US firms.
  • California’s clean-air initiatives drew automakers to produce electric vehicles (EVs), but early 1990s EVs’ price and performance were not commercially viable.
  • Believing the electric car had no commercial future, Toyota, Honda and Ford destroyed many of their fledgling EVs in the early 2000s.
  • In 2007, GM moved ahead with the sporty Chevy Volt, even though the 2008 recession threatened the big automakers and stymied most EV development.
  • Elon Musk’s Tesla proved that EVs can equal the quality of traditional cars.
  • Despite having to recover from earthquake damage, Japan’s automakers now build most of the world’s EVs; they also offer batteries, engines and technological know-how.
  • China has the largest auto market, but its EV technology remains inferior – for now.
  • The US government and US automakers must unite to compete in the “Great Race.”
The Great Race Book Cover

The Great Race Book Summary

The Race Is On

American auto manufacturers dominated the world market in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1980s, however, consumers turned to Japanese companies such as Honda and Toyota because of their cars’ quality, fuel efficiency and emission controls. With electric-based vehicles set to gain market share in the future, many factors – technology, politics, the economy, industrial policies, the public and private sectors’ dynamics, and international environmental policies – will determine which countries succeed in the “Great Race” to mass-market a desirable electric car.

“The overwhelming odds are that the car of the future will drive on electricity in some form or another, and eventually it will be less car than robot. In other words, it will drive itself.”

Ford Motor Company’s introduction of the assembly line in early 1913 made America the undisputed leader of the automotive industry. An earthquake that struck Tokyo in 1923 forced Japan to import a large number of Ford Model T cars, which maneuvered through the city’s rubble more efficiently than horses or Japanese vehicles. The Japanese converted Model T vehicles into buses for public transportation. Capitalizing on the Model T’s popularity, Ford and General Motors (GM) built plants in Japan. In 1934, they sold some 35,000 vehicles; the Japanese sold barely 1,000 domestic cars.

“Few technologies have been as economically important and transformative as the automobile.”

As the relationship between the US and Japanese governments deteriorated before World War II, Japan ousted foreign auto manufacturers in order to create opportunities for its domestic companies such as Toyota and Nissan. Yet the Japanese automakers failed to make a dent in America’s dominance. Japan’s defeat in WWII appeared to be the death knell for its auto industry. However, less than a month after the war ended, the Allied General Headquarters needed trucks to aid Japan’s recovery and allowed Toyota, Nissan and Isuzu to resume business.

“Honda “achieved what others had thought impossible: a zero (criteria) emissions internal combustion engine.”

In 1951, Japan again took measures against importers. This time it imposed heavy taxes on large vehicles – predominately American – and steered Japanese consumers toward smaller cars. Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) sought to penetrate the US market, especially California, with its exports. Japanese automakers had to match worldwide quality standards. Toyota’s first US export, the Toyopet S. Crown, debuted in 1957 and failed. Toyota vowed to produce higher quality vehicles by calling on US industrial know-how. It improved its production efficiency by reducing excess inventory and teaching workers to operate multiple machines. By 1980, Japan overtook Germany as the leading auto exporter to the US.

Environmental Mission

Pollution became a serious problem in the US and Japan in the 1970s. The Japanese realized that exporting cars to the US required adhering to emissions regulations. They used the US Clean Air Act of 1970 as a guide in setting up the Japanese Environmental Agency. Honda, which began as a motorcycle manufacturer and gained fame in Formula One racing, developed the Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion system to control emissions. The company profited handsomely when Japanese and US companies adopted its technology.

“With the explosion in hybrid sales, helped along by rising gasoline prices, the future of the auto industry suddenly looked more defined.”

Toyota’s sales continued to soar in the US, posing a threat to American automakers. In 1985, GM purchased Hughes Aircraft, serving notice of its intention to apply US aerospace know-how to automobile technology. When Australia invited GM to participate in a race with solar-powered cars, Hughes vice president Howard Wilson hired a superstar engineer from California, AeroVironment and an electronics genius, Al Cocconi. Their American-made Sunraycer overwhelmed the competition in the 1987 race, attaining a top speed of 60 mph [96.561 km/hour] and averaging more than 40 mph [64.374 km/hour].

“Toyota understood how to design, fabricate and integrate batteries, inverters and electric motors into automobiles.”

Capitalizing on the excitement, GM CEO Roger Smith encouraged AeroVironment to build an electric, two-seat sports car. The Impact debuted at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. The car didn’t make a sound or create exhaust fumes. Smith considered mass production, depending upon customer feedback. The California Air Resource Board (CARB), which yearned for a “zero-emission vehicle,” was excited about the Impact. But instead of focusing on solar power or batteries, the state sought to switch from gasoline and diesel to far less toxic methanol.

“The beginnings of the all-American electric-car company are steeped in controversy…the idea had a number of fathers, and its early execution was a synthetic process.”

Automakers abhorred methanol because they would have to redesign their fuel systems, a costly and laborious task. The oil industry also opposed methanol. In 1989, Atlantic Richfield introduced a “new” gasoline that lowered pollution levels. Though methanol ceased to be a major issue, CARB mandated that, in the next 15 years, a progressively higher percentage of new cars had to be zero-emission vehicles.

“Nissan’s entry into the EV space was a clear signal to regulators, competitors, market analysts, journalists and the public that electric cars were, again, on a roll.”

Detroit wasn’t happy. Manufacturing electric vehicles was expensive and time consuming. And AeroVironment – not GM – actually built the bare bones Impact. GM still had to add standard features such as air conditioning and a radio. The car became less efficient and more costly as it made the transition from the drawing board to the production floor. GM unveiled the EV1 at the 1996 Los Angeles auto show. The public showed great interest, but automakers still lacked the know-how to make the electric car commercially feasible.

Toyota and Honda

In the early 1990s, in response to the rising popularity of Japanese cars in America, President Bill Clinton formed the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. The government would lend technological assistance to Detroit manufacturers to build a luxury sedan that could go 80 mpg [3.5 liters per 100 kilometers] using far less energy.

“People were betting big against Tesla. Yet as Tesla’s silent Roadsters started slipping onto California freeways, they made an indelible mark on the global automotive landscape.”

In response, Toyota set out to build an electric, price-friendly family vehicle that got significantly better gas mileage. This resulted in the hybrid Prius and the Rav4 SUV. Then, in 1996, Honda’s Civic made it the first company to meet California’s challenging emissions criteria for gas-powered cars. Honda soon was building engines that burned so clean that CARB couldn’t detect any emissions. In the end, however, not even Honda could produce a battery-powered car that competed with gas-powered vehicles. Though quiet and environmentally friendly, electric cars were unaffordable for most consumers, relatively slow and hampered by limited range.

“The Volt was GM’s technology flagship, it was its environmental flagship and it was its promise of corporate renewal.”

Faced with a product that was not commercially viable, Toyota, Honda and Ford began shutting down their EV programs. In the early 2000s, they “unceremoniously crushed” many electric vehicles, believing there was no future in the market. In fact, the automobile companies remained interested in EVs, but they needed time to develop the technology.

A New Player Emerges

Until 2002, when China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO), it lacked a domestic auto industry. But, WTO trade agreements prevented other countries from habitually rejecting Chinese imports and encouraged foreigners to invest in the Chinese economy. Although favorable lending laws enabled Chinese firms to build new factories, the Chinese still struggled to establish a niche.

“To dominate a 21st-century economy, to win this race, America will have to change; and to some significant degree, that change will have to be political.”

The task of boosting China’s substandard technology fell to Wan Gang, a Chinese engineer who had studied abroad. After his graduation from Germany’s prestigious Clausthal University of Technology, he worked at Audi. He rose through the ranks and joined the planning department. While retaining his job there, he returned to Clausthal as a visiting professor. A Chinese delegation including China’s minister of science and technology, Xu Guanhua, visited Audi. While leading their tour, Wan described a plan he believed could fix China’s automotive industry. He suggested that instead of focusing on the traditional engine, the Chinese should concentrate on building an electric car. This would “leapfrog” China past the West and Japan. The Chinese appointed Wan to a professorship at Tongji University in charge of a government initiative to develop innovative automotive technologies.

Plugged In

Mitsubishi was not a major player in Japan’s automotive industry in the early 2000s. The automaker lost millions producing cars with poor fuel efficiency. With its existence hanging in the balance, the company committed to a new philosophy that included reducing carbon emissions and developing electric vehicles. Subaru soon joined Mitsubishi in this electric initiative, which had the backing of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Mitsubishi’s Colt EV hit the US market in 2011.

“Henry Ford charged into a race that would…change the course of mankind.”

Nissan, another struggling Japanese manufacturer that turned the corner in 2007, also developed an electric car. Under the leadership of Brazilian-born CEO Carlos Ghosn, who had earlier worked with other Japanese automakers, it debuted the LEAF – the “Leading Environmentally-friendly Affordable Family Car.”

“In his “time, the automotive industry was a speculative footnote in the vast global economy. But that would soon change.”

Not to be outdone, American businessman Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, worked with entrepreneur Martin Eberhard to create Tesla Motors. Their three-part strategy began with developing an exclusive electric vehicle that only the wealthy could afford, followed by making a fancy sedan better than any available traditional vehicle, and finally creating an affordable EV for the public. Rising costs and internal power struggles endangered the company as Tesla built the $100,000 Roadster. Though the vehicle had flaws, including shoddy components and a costly battery, its gradual appearance on California’s highways signaled a renewed US interest in EVs.

“It was the first heat in a long series of contests that would relentlessly reform society, shift geopolitics, sow fortunes, and propel the global economy far into the next century and beyond. It was the race to build the car of the future.”

GM executive Bob Lutz became increasingly frustrated watching the growth of Toyota’s popularity in the US. Toyota’s reputation as the most environmentally conscious auto manufacturer fueled sales of its hybrid Prius. With its emphasis on fuel efficiency, the Japanese giant made inroads into the SUV and truck territory that GM long dominated. Lutz suspected that GM had to develop a viable electric vehicle to revitalize its image among American consumers.

Ace in the Hole

The 2008 recession compromised the EV initiative worldwide and threatened to put GM, Ford and Chrysler out of business. Congress was not ready to bail out Detroit, but Lutz had an ace in his pocket: the Chevy Volt. Though it wasn’t yet on the market, the Volt concept generated positive public relations and held great promise for Detroit. In 2007, the Volt debuted as a mock-up at the Detroit Auto Show. Its sleek, sporty design was a big hit. GM moved forward with commercialization of its new electric offering.

In 2011, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Great Tohoku Earthquake hit Japan, causing massive damage to its nuclear and electrical capabilities. Nevertheless, by the summer of 2012, Japanese automakers were number one in EV sales and “controlled about 90% of the global market for hybrid and EV batteries.”

The Chinese made a foray into competing with Japan, but fell back. As host of the 2008 Olympics, China was determined to show the world it cared about reducing air pollution. The Chinese ramped up EV production specifically for use in the Olympic venue. Riding that momentum, in 2009, China supplanted the US as the world’s largest auto market.

Though China’s potential fascinated the media and American capitalists, the Chinese – unlike the Americans and Japanese – didn’t have a solid game plan. The Communist Party believed that building electric vehicles would be easier than manufacturing traditional cars. Taking an insular approach, Chinese automakers didn’t explore the international market for partners or components. By 2012, the Chinese realized they had underestimated the difficulties of producing a competitive electric car.

Success Stories

Thanks to its obsessive co-founder Elon Musk, Tesla overcame every financial and developmental obstacle. Its Model S sedan, launched in June 2012, has outstanding acceleration, travels nearly 300 miles [482.803 kilometers] before recharging, enjoys exceptional crash-test ratings and earned high praise from Consumer Reports. California offers incentives to EV buyers and allows EVs to use high-occupancy commuter lanes. Eight other states now say they want to encourage sales of 3.3 million EVs by 2025.

Japan’s carmakers now crank out most of the world’s EVs, plus batteries and engines. The Chinese produced some 12,000 electric vehicles in 2012 and 2013, but their technology isn’t on a par with that of the US or Japan. The nation that wins the Great Race will need corporate leadership, government partnerships, and technological flexibility and bravery.

About the Author

Levi Tillemann

Levi Tillemann is the Cal and Jeff Leonard Fellow at the New America Foundation. He served as Special Advisor for Policy and International Affairs at the US Department of Energy.

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