THE AMERICAN automobile industry appears to believe that gasoline price increases are the root of all its problems. The rapid rise of the cost of driving swung their customers almost overnight to small, efficient cars, they contend. They just need a little breathing space and a temporary infusion of cash, they further contend, to speed the transition they were already making from large to small cars.

Unfortunately, the trouble runs much deeper. On two crucial measures, the American producers fall far behind the Germans and the Japanese: productivity and quality control.

Japanese workers each produce annually almost twice as many cars as do their American counterparts. The reason is not faster assembly lines, but more sophisticated use of advanced machiner like electronically controlled robots. In Japan, a car is typically assembled with 100 fewer hours of human labor than in the United States. That 100 fewer hours' labor translates into a saving of $600 per car in manufacturing costs. And the time-per-car is going down faster in Japan than here; the Japanese manufacturers are widening the gap by about 4 percent a year. The Japanese currently have about 50,000 robot machine tools in all sectors of their economy, and nearly 13,000 are coming on line each year. Of those, fully half go to their auto industry. American industry has about one-tenth as many robots as the Japanese. Americans have a lot a catching up to do.

While the American automobile industry continues to require workers to perform hurried, repetitive, mind-numbing tasks that could better be turned over to robots, it does not ask them often enough to do what humans do best -- to think. The quality-control circles employed by Japanese industry are now famous. And they work. A recent survey of automotive engineers in this country shows that an overwhelming 70 percent believe that German and Japanese cars are superior to U.S. cars, and that the difference can be traced to workmanship, attention to detail and cooperation between labor and management.

There is no particular magic to increasing the quality of a product. It takes investment of time and energy by both management and labor, developing a sense of shared enterprise and relying on workers to exercise their judgment as well as their muscles. The Japanese learned it from American management experts. U.S. auto companies can do it too. But a clear and honest diagnosis of the problem is required before effective repair work can begin.