The Trump administration on Wednesday launched a national security investigation into car and truck imports that could lead to new U.S. tariffs similar to those imposed on imported steel and aluminum in March.
The Commerce Department said the probe under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 would investigate whether vehicle and parts imports were threatening the industry's health and ability to research and develop new, advanced technologies.
"There is evidence suggesting that, for decades, imports from abroad have eroded our domestic auto industry," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement, promising a "thorough, fair and transparent investigation."
The move opens a new front in Trump's "America First" trade agenda aimed at clawing back manufacturing jobs lost to overseas competitors.
In addition to the 25 percent tariffs on steel and 10 percent tariffs on aluminum, the administration has threatened tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods over intellectual property complaints. It is also trying to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to return more auto production to the United States.
The Commerce Department said the probe would determine whether lost domestic production had weakened the U.S. "internal economy" and its ability to develop connected vehicle systems, autonomous vehicles, fuel cells, electric motors and batteries, and advanced manufacturing processes.
In a separate statement, President Donald Trump said: "Core industries such as automobiles and automotive parts are critical to our strength as a Nation."
A Trump administration official said before the announcement that the expected move was aimed partly at pressuring Canada and Mexico to make concessions in talks to update NAFTA that have languished in part over auto provisions, as well as pressuring Japan and the European Union, which also export large numbers of vehicles to the United States.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump teased the announcement in a tweet: "There will be big news coming soon for our great American Autoworkers.
At a meeting with automakers at the White House on May 11, Trump told automakers he was planning to impose tariffs of 20 percent or 25 percent on some imported vehicles, sources told Reuters and specifically criticized German automakers for exporting a large number of vehicles to the United States.
'Fewer choices, higher prices'
An ad hoc industry group representing the largest Japanese, German and other foreign automakers called "Here for America," criticized the effort.
"The U.S. auto industry is thriving and growing," said John Bozzella, CEO of Global Automakers, a trade group representing Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and others, who also speaks for the broader group