Will an auto bailout mean better, safer cars?

With the Big Three on such uncertain and unsteady ground, it’s anyone’s guess what the future of American auto manufacturing will look like a couple of years from now. Will our car companies still exist, and if so, what will they and the cars they manufacture look like? Will they be fuel efficient, cleaner, and any safer than they are now?

Business blogger Charles H. Green summed up the problem with the old Detroit paradigm when he said “Toyota introduced the Prius in 1997. 11 thoughtful years later, GM brings us–the Hybrid Escalade.” Such a profound lack of vision in the Big Three’s leadership dictated the way they did business and the way they built cars. But even though the fate of these companies is uncertain, one thing we do know is this: the old business model has crashed and burned. The phoenix that rises from these ashes HAS to be more attentive to the public’s needs, otherwise it will never fly.

Public Citizen, a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, sent its president, Joan Claybrook, to Congress on Tuesday to speak on the matter. “The financial problems facing domestic manufacturers are largely a result of their failure to adapt to a changing market, risky reliance on gas-guzzling vehicles and lack of investment in innovative safety, fuel economy and emissions technologies until literally forced to do so by regulation or lack of sales,” Claybrook told the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Crises can turn out to be gifts if you pay attention and do the right thing, which usually means rethinking your old ways. Claybrook said that the auto industry’s crisis “provides Congress an opportunity to exert pressure on automakers to achieve greater fuel economy than currently required under federal law.” Claybrook also said that the auto industry should not run back to Detroit and hide under the same failed business model — that they should not “use the crisis as an excuse to roll back safety improvements.”

“Automakers should support new safety standards including strong rollover roof crush and ejection standards to address the thousands of deaths each year in rollover crashes,” Claybrook added.

Our government sets automotive safety standards, which are lower than safety standards in many other parts of the world, and expects the automotive industry to meet them. When the government tries to raise standards, the car companies fuss, talk of lost profits and layoffs ensue, and the companies are given years to begrudgingly adjust.

But imagine an American auto industry in which the car companies consistently strive to exceed safety and emission standards. An industry that doesn’t just react to trends but sets them? An industry that sees the big picture and always knows what its role in that picture is. An industry that can take its sights off of profit just long enough for it to envision better, cleaner, safer cars that the American public needs.