Three goals for the American auto industry: sustainable engines, sustainable factories, and sustainable communities.

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 11/11/2008

Up to this point in our history, when Americans imagined 'the future,' they thought about cars that could fly, a cognitive frame inherited from old time TV shows like Flash Gordon and The Jetsons.   Instead of that cartoon image, we would be wise to start seeing our future in terms of  three far-reaching goals for the American auto industry: sustainable engines, sustainable factories, and sustainable communities.

Future Includes Cars, But Not Cars Of The Past
The first step to visualizing what must happen with the American auto industry involves two basic realizations:  (1) the future includes cars, but (2) not cars of the past.

For better or worse, this country is never going to abandon cars on a mass scale in favor of public transportation.  A massive investment in public transportation would be welcome, and it may happen.  But the car as the dominant form of transportation is here to stay in American life--and here to stay for some time to come.  The American cars of the past, however, will not be a part of our future.  Heavy, large cars run by gasoline powered combustion engines will go the way of the Dodo. In 50 years, there will be  SUVs in museums, but not on the roads. 

Think about what this means:  America's future will be filled with cars that have yet to be produced.  The reality that the future includes cars, but not cars of the past is a manufacturing opportunity on a scale hitherto unimaginable--but it is much more than that.  In kind of change required to produce cars for the future will also be on a scale previously unimaginable.  So, when we are talking about producing the cars for the next few generations of Americans, we are actually talking about creating new factories, new modes of production, new kinds of jobs--the new conditions in which these new cars will be produced.

To produce the cars Americans will be driving 20 years from now, the auto industry will need to build new plants--many more--in a new way.  They will also need to retrain their current employees in new ways; keep them healthy in new ways; and bring in new employees educated in new programs.  

The big difference between the cars of the past and those of the future can be summed up in one word:  sustainability.    The cars of the future must not only fit into a new concern for sustainability--environmental and economic--but also, by virtue of the size of the auto industry and the omnipresence of the car in American life, the cars of the future will be the driving force (pun intended) behind a new American way of life centered  on sustainability.  It can be no other way.   The house, the car, food, fuel--these are the core elements of the American economy.  When we talk about a sustainable future, we are in fact talking about fundamentally altering these core elements.

Three Big Opportunities For The Big Three
With General Motors slipping into a financial coma and millions of working families hanging in the balance, now is the time for real vision from Washington and Detroit.  Rather than simply talking in frightful terms about a 'rescue' plan for the Big Three, Democratic and Republican leaders alike should present the American people with a bold plan for the future of the U.S. economy driven by the renaissance of America's most iconic industry.  The American auto industry has the potential to move the country forward and benefit more people and more states--in less time--than any other sector of our economy.  The opportunity is immense, if only Washington and Detroit can find the courage to reach out and grab it. 

Here are three steps towards transforming the failure of the Big Three into a the engine of a sustainable American future:

1. A National Project To Create A Sustainable Engine
The first step to building the cars of the future will be to design and build a new kind of engine, one capable of working on the variety of sustainable fuels converted to electricity.  The new engine will not be 'filled with gas,' but 'recharged.'  No more gas tanks:  plugs.  No more exhaust pipes.  But the new engine cannot be 'a hybrid,' per se.  It must be a new design, developed in concert with private industry and government, in a relatively short period of time (e.g., 2 years), within the framework of a national project, along the lines of the NASA project to develop a space vehicle capable of reaching the moon.

The Big Three manufacturers, together with the federal government, would participate in the development of the new engine, and all would have full access to the results.  The engine would not and could not be proprietary, but would be a common good: developed by, paid for, and belonging to the American people and American industry jointly.  The car designs these engines ultimately powered would be a different matter. Those designs would be products developed and sold privately, but not the engine itself.  Everyone must have a stake in the engine's development and success.  Students and teachers should talk about the race to develop it.  News reporters should cover its progress.  Politicians on all sides of the aisle should work together to make sure it succeeds.  And when the new sustainable engine finally rolls down the red carpet, the entire country should be watching and remember where they were when it happened.

2. 50-State Consortium For Sustainable Car Manufacturing
The second step to building cars of the future would be to design and build a new kind of factory, one capable of sustainable production of cars fitted with the new engines.  Before any of this can happen, the President should convene a 50-state conference on sustainable car manufacturing, the result of which would be a new 'consortium.'   While the key players in this new consortium will be the current auto manufacturers seeking to build new cars with the new sustainable engine, the purpose of the consortium will be to ensure that every state in the union becomes a site for building a new, sustainable manufacturing facility for the American auto industry.   There should also be a place for new manufacturers.   Some states will have larger stakes than others, but all 50 states must be involved. 

The key principle adopted by the consortium, and the key to building the new plants should be very clear:  the new manufacturing facilities should follow the LEED standards as advocated by the U.S. Green Building Council.    The LEED standards are a set of guidelines for sustainability in building design, construction, and operation.  By following the LEED standards, the 50-state consortium would become the central focus and the largest single investment in sustainable manufacturing and building in the U.S.  The auto-manufacturing industry, in other words, by investing in the infrastructure to build new cars would also pull the country forward in sustainable building practices. Moreover, by requiring at least one new manufacturing facility in all 50-states, the consortium would single-handedly spark competition and generate growth in the green building sector.

3. Compact for Sustainable Working Communities

The third step to building cars of the future will be for the new sustainable manufacturing sites to become the staging ground for new labor practices designed specifically to solve all the problems currently challenging America's working communities, chief among them: healthcare and retirement.  The creation of a new line of manufacturing will require of the auto industry a bold step into new approaches to guaranteeing that the working communities who build the cars of the future will be sustained.  Simply put: cars of the future cannot be manufactured in such a way that they decimate American working communities.  To meet this requirement, the auto industry must become a staging ground for widespread innovation.

Working together with labor, state, and federal agencies in the area of healthcare and retirement, the auto industry must become the front-line in the development of new, secure conditions for working communities in America.   Given the scale of their enterprise and the number of sites in all 50-states working simultaneously to solve this problem,  U.S. auto manufacturers will, effectively, be the stage for solving the two largest domestic problems facing the nation:  sustainable healthcare and retirement security.  In the course of honing on on the most successful approaches, the automotive industry will become the major, good-faith partner of both state and federal government,  thereby circumventing the political impasses that have hitherto prevented both government and private industry from tackling these problems.

The Car As Frame For Sustainability
Each of these three steps is fraught with complications and has been simplified in this discussion to the point where experts in each area could easily dismiss the whole scheme.  In many ways, that is our starting point.  Rejecting the potential of the American auto industry to generate sustainable practices for the U.S. economy is the easy part.  The tough part is stepping back and considering the implications of such a project--of taking into account the mind boggling scale and scope of what the U.S. auto industry could achieve in the next twenty years.

Those potential achievements extend far beyond building sustainable cars or generating sustainable profits.  They are about sustaining resources, chief among them: people and communities.

The production of a new fleet of American cars brings with it the opportunity to take bold steps towards a sustainable future in industrial design, large scale manufacturing, and building construction, not to mention the myriad industries connected to those massive sectors of our economy.  Moreover, by seizing the opportunity to create secure and sustainable conditions for working communities, industry, state and federal government will finally have a stage on which they can work together to create an economic safety net that benefits everyone.

The American car is a core element in American life and car manufacturers find themselves in difficult straights that nobody can deny.  At the very least, the federal government must step up to make sure the Big Three do not go down, taking with them the millions of families who depend on them.  Beyond the short term, however, there is great potential for the auto industry to become a key player in the challenge to to achieve America's future. The exact scenario need not unfold exactly as outlined here, but for any of it to happen America's leaders in Detroit, in Washington, and in every state capital across the country must find the courage to see the car not just as a vehicle, but as a frame for a sustainable American future.    And when they do find that courage:  buckle up--it's going to be an amazing ride.

(This post has been included in an important and timely discussion initiated by The Breakthrough Institute: Can America Reinvent the Auto Industry?)

© Jeffrey Feldman 2008, Frameshop

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