Detroit's Critics Just Don't Get It

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By Warren Brown
Sunday, March 1, 2009

The nation that invented the automobile has no intention of walking away from it. That nation is Germany, which gave the world its first carriage powered by an internal combustion engine in 1885.

But the nation that popularized the automobile via assembly-line production, the United States, seems less certain of its continued commitment to the car -- that is, to the car wearing a GM, Ford or Chrysler badge.

It's fundamentally unfair.

Detroit is getting a bum rap.

And if President Obama does not understand that, just as he clearly does not understand some basic facts of automotive history, as indicated by his misstatement last week about which country invented the automobile, he is likely to do Detroit more harm than good.

"And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it," Obama told a joint session of Congress, delineating his administration's plans to revive the nation's economy.

The comment represented more than a simple historical error. It bespoke an attitude, the idea that the federal government, carrying bags of taxpayer money, must now ride to the rescue of a recalcitrant Detroit that finds itself on the brink of bankruptcy after "years of bad decision making."

Here's one more attempt to set the record straight.

The Detroit that Washington loves to hate, the one that policy wonks and politicians think they can run better than industry professionals, stopped existing at least 15 years ago. It faded because executives at GM, Ford and Chrysler reached a consensus not fully embraced by Congress or the American consumer. To wit: Oil will not last forever.

Detroit's executives aren't stupid. Nor are they arrogant fools who care more for their own paychecks than they do for the their industry's or their country's future. They know that the car of the future will have to be powered by something other than gasoline or diesel -- or else there is no future.

Thus, it would behoove Obama's automotive task force to take a close look at the billions of dollars Detroit already has poured into the development of alternative fuels and drive systems. The truth is that Detroit has been working hard to develop cars that consumers will need. But that research and development largely has been financed by selling cars and trucks that consumers want now.

That brings up a second point -- the nonsense that Detroit no longer makes cars that Americans want to buy, as evidenced by Detroit's consistent loss of share of its home market.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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