The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

December 13, 2008

It's go time for the Big 3


I’m a long way off from buying a new vehicle, but I already have a vision of my dream car.

It’s reliable, safe and green as can be _ powered by batteries, hydrogen, solar energy or some yet-undeveloped renewable fuel.

And, in my dreams, this car is also American-made.

That’s why I cautiously support the auto bailout that’s been hashed out in Congress this week. The deal, which passed in the House on Wednesday but was facing significant opposition in the Senate as I write this, would give General Motors and Chrysler $14 billion in emergency loans to stave off imminent bankruptcy.

(Ford is in a slightly better position and won’t be getting a loan, at least not this time around.)

The short-term fix is designed to buy the automakers time to work with the new Congress and the Obama administration on a long-term plan for survival.

In a recent CNN poll, 61 percent of Americans said they did not support a federal bailout of the auto industry because it was unfair to taxpayers. I can understand where they’re coming from. Taxpayers have already been tapped to rescue investment bankers and mortgage lenders, among others.

Offering emergency loans to the auto industry is another huge gamble with taxpayer money, and I’m not sure I trust the CEOs of these companies to use the money wisely. (Enter the new “car czar,” whose fun title belies the tremendous responsibility of policing the companies’ restructuring efforts).

The fact that the CEOs of the Big Three didn’t realize that flying in corporate jets to D.C. to ask for money would be a public relations nightmare is troubling, at best.

It certainly makes me question both their foresight and their common sense.

But at least they learned from the mistake. On their next visit to Capitol Hill, they traveled in fuel-efficient hybrids and agreed to cut their multimillion-dollar salaries to $1 a year if their companies received federal loans.

While these are largely symbolic gestures, they do matter. In order for this bailout to work, people like me have to be on board. American consumers have to believe that our auto industry will rebound. We have to believe that Detroit can _ and will _ make the cars we need and want.

It may take a long time for the Big Three to restore their image, and they may never be able to inspire the kind of loyalty that made previous generations vow to “buy American.”

Toyota and Honda have not only developed a reputation for quality and reliability, they’ve also led the way in developing fuel-efficient hybrids. American automakers, meanwhile, have focused on catering to our culture of excess, giving us a huge array of gas guzzlers with creature comforts such as extra cup holders, built-in DVD players and doors that slide open with the push of a button.

Some argue that the bailout will be too little, too late. We’re too far behind the foreign carmakers in developing fuel-efficient vehicles, they say, and even if we did have the science and engineering innovations to develop greener cars, our industry would be ill-equipped to produce them cost effectively.

This may be true. But let’s not forget the EV1, the little electric car that inspired such passion among West Coast drivers back in the 1990s, until GM pulled it off the road. If the battery-powered Chevy Volt, due out in 2010, is anywhere near what it’s hyped up to be, there’s hope for GM.

I find it sad that a major bone of contention in the bailout talks was whether the automakers could sue states, like California, with greenhouse gas emissions caps stricter than federal standards. This shows how out of touch the automakers really are.

They should not be wasting one cent on these lawsuits; every penny and every ounce of effort should be put into developing, producing and marketing the best-quality, greenest cars available. This is the future.

The American auto industry was a big part of the industrial revolution that paved the way for our recent economic prosperity. Now, as we face the toughest economic times in 50 years, we must draw on that tradition of ingenuity and determination.

It’s now or never. If American automakers can’t regroup and head in a new direction, they will not succeed.

And that would be not only disastrous for our already perilous economy, but very, very sad.

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Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.