The Terminator's Day In Motown

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold Schwarzenegger

Almost exactly a year ago, a political leader in Detroit decided to make a statement that would surely be popular with the locals. He put up a billboard that said, ""Arnold to Michigan: Drop Dead!" When the billboard went up, the people of Detroit cheered and somewhere in Sacramento, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger probably puffed on a cigar and chuckled to himself.

Schwarzenegger has come to personify what many in the domestic auto industry can't stand.

He is unabashed in his belief auto makers can and should make cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles. Heck, he has a Hummer that runs on vegetable oil. Don't tell him the Big 3 can't make a car or truck that gets far better mileage with far fewer emissions. He doesn't buy that. Which is why California is leading a brigade of states pushing for a waiver that would allow them to require stricter auto emissions.

That history makes the Governors speech in Detroit next month one to watch. There was a time when few dared to go into Motown and tell the auto makers to get off their butts. Not anymore. When Barack Obama was running for President and gave a speech in Detroit he made it clear things have to change with the Big 3. Then, when the CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler went to Capitol Hill, members of Congress blasted the Detroit 3. The days when political leaders felt compelled to show deference to Detroit are gone.

So when Governor Schwarzenegger speaks at a conference in Detroit in late April, you can expect him to deliver the same message he's been pounding for months. He sees no reason why the auto industry can not develop and sell more hybrids, electric cars, or vehicles that will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Sure, there are people in Michigan who will say, "Hey, we're doing that already." The fact is, the Big 3 started pushing alternative fuel vehicles only after being pushed into a corner by the economy, fuel prices, and the competition.

Now Schwarzenegger is pushing them to go further and do more. Slowly, but surely, his message and the message from other politicians in Washington is getting through to the decision makers in Motown. They know the public will embrace and buy more fuel efficient vehicles. Their challenge now is how to go green and make money doing it.

I don't fault the Big 3 (and the foreign auto maker) for selling tens of thousands of SUVs and trucks in the 90's and earlier this decade. Fuel was cheap, people wanted the big rigs, and these companies were giving customers what they wanted.

That was then, this is now. And these days, the industry and market are moving toward more green vehicles.

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