By Rachel Barge, Breakthrough Generation Fellow
This post is part of our week-long Special Issue exploring ways to sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. Stay tuned for more...
In a city known for hardcore rock and hardcore auto manufacturing, some serious blues are the music of the week. Detroit, whose top 3 automakers have been closing plants left and right in the face of skyrocketing gas prices, is looking for a quick fix to a 10 year strategical failure. The NY Times grimly reported:
How did American automakers fail? To par it down to a simple answer: GM, Ford and Chrysler built cars that Americans wanted in the moment (when gas was cheap and abundant), while Japanese Toyota and Honda built cars based on what they knew consumers would want in the future (taking into account peak oil / inevitable gas price increases). So now Toyota is selling Priuses at record rates and re-investing the profits in continued R&D for more efficient batteries, and Detroit automakers have gigantic SUV's gathering dust on the lot.
"G.M. is temporarily halting the assembly lines at seven truck factories in North America before closing four plants permanently within the next three years... Sales were down 28 percent at the Ford Motor Company, 18 percent at General Motors and Nissan. Hardest hit was Chrysler, whose sales fell 36 percent after it discontinued some models in a bid to increase profit margins. Ford says it will build 25 percent fewer vehicles and that it now expects to lose money in 2009, the year it had set as a deadline for returning to profitability."
Unless the USA is content letting Japan beat us silly in the global auto industry, we need a plan to re-charge Detroit, the hot seat of American manufacturing jobs.
General Motors is taking a crack at task with the 2010 Chevy Volt (pictured above). The Volt is heralded by some as having the potential to lead an American shift to efficient, sexy PHEVs as a way to save Detroit from mess it's in. A recent Washington Post blog, however, claims that it's too little too late - that American auto-makers are too far behind, and that a massive Japanese take-over of Detroit auto companies is inevitable. And in a sense, they're right - U.S. automakers, acting alone, have been (and will likely continue to be) too slow to take the visionary steps that will secure green vehicle markets of future.
But is there any way to save Detroit Rock City? I think so. Strategic government investment (like Australia is doing) and incentives for retooling manufacturing plants could jump-start the U.S. auto industry, in the same way we cranked out entirely new WWII manufacturing for tanks and planes in a matter of months. These companies face adapting or dying out, and apparently require some financial pushing to see the light.
And what could be a more prudent investment? After all, these are the electric cars and trucks that all of us - all 300 million in the U.S. - will be driving in the future, not to mention China, India and Brazil's skyrocketing demand. America can save and actually expand our auto industry jobs if we think strategically about the future - and put our federal money where our mouth is. It basically depends how bad we want it.
Some may say the American auto industry is a lost cause, but I think it's fundamental to our economy and our culture. We are the inventors, the leaders, and the spreaders of great technology around the globe. Given our perch on the edge of a recession, I don't want to see America make the unnecessary fall from innovative global leader to mediocre trend follower, and more middle-class Midwest families losing their jobs. I know we can do better. What we need is the visionary leadership and funds to help American automakers reach their potential as global green vehicle futurists.
Just think - an electrified Detroit, pumping out the world's best electric cars and manufacturing the solar panels that will power them on top of it. That's the stuff that will get the American economy going and thrust us back into the global auto sphere. So come on Detroit, get rockin!