The American-Made Index uses sales as a stand-in for the number of assembly-line employees and suppliers. Those assembly-line workers are the largest single chunk of direct employment by an automaker in the U.S. The Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research says roughly two-thirds of the Detroit Three's direct employees are paid hourly: namely assembly-line workers.
Sales are just one way to reflect auto-line employment, however.
Exports throw a wrench into the spokes. They used to be negligible, as high labor costs traditionally discouraged building extra cars here. But recent trends, including increasing new-car sales, ebbing labor costs, relative economic stability and volatile international currency issues have helped to boost U.S. manufacturing. Light-vehicle auto production is up 6.8% year-over-year through the end of May 2013, according to Automotive News, and exports account for a growing slice of the pie. International Trade Commission data show exports increased 82% between 2009 and 2012; they're up another 3.2% in the first quarter of 2013.
Toyota says it ships nine of its U.S.-built models to 23 countries. Matt Blunt, president of the Detroit Three-backed American Automotive Policy Council, says his member companies exported some 958,000 vehicles in 2012 — about 18% of their total U.S. production. And by the end of 2014, Honda expects to export more North American-built cars than it imports, a 180-degree reversal for the automaker.
"Exports are up considerably," said Kristin Dziczek, who directs CAR's Labor and Industry Group. "Relatively, we're getting to be a cheaper labor market, and a mature market that you want to be in to sell to."
Do sales figures alone give an accurate picture of employment for any particular car? After all, BMW built more X3 SUVs in 2012 at its South Carolina assembly plant than Toyota has built Sienna minivans in Indiana, according to Automotive News production figures. But U.S. sales alone, where the Sienna outsold the X3 by more than a 3-to-1 ratio, hid that fact because BMW exports 70% of its South Carolina-built SUVs.
Reimagining the American-Made Index that weighs production numbers (the number of cars coming off factory lines) instead of sales, but using the same domestic-content parameters, creates a list that differs from the original, but not by much.
For all but the most export-heavy cars, production tends to follow sales. What's more, the vast majority of today's cars (even those built here, like the X3) have relatively low domestic-parts content. In fact, just 14 cars for the 2013 model year have 75% or higher domestic parts, out of more than 200 models for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collected 2013 data. That number was 30 in 2011 and 20 in 2012.
Still, car shoppers want American-made cars. Nearly half the consumers surveyed by Cars.com in 2012 who only consider Detroit automakers said they would find a car from a foreign-based automaker more appealing if it were built in the United States.
There's more of that going on, says Ron Bookbinder, Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association director.
"In 2012 alone, 3,295,000 vehicles were produced, a significant bounce back to the pre-recession levels of 2007," Bookbinder said. "Contrast this to the early 1980s, when Japanese automakers produced fewer than 100,000 automobiles per year in the United States. Now, as of 2012, fully 70% of Japanese brand sales in the U.S. are produced in North America."
Still, AAPC's Blunt says Japanese automakers along with their European and Korean counterparts could build more. Detroit automakers "have an outsized impact on the American economy," he said. "Two out of three American autoworkers work for Chrysler, General Motors or Ford."