What About a "Manhattan Project" for Detroit?

“If we are lucky, we will come out with a bill next week that nobody likes.”

With those words, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, wrapped up two days of testimony from auto executives intended to be something like a truth commission for the incompetent but ending up more like sado-masochism in bespoke suits. It leaves one wondering what happens if we aren’t lucky — and generally not looking forward to this week.

It also raises a question. What kind of solution would everyone like?

Enter Chad Holliday, CEO not of a Detroit automaker, but of Delaware’s DuPont. It shows just how far the U.S. auto industry has fallen when it’s getting schooled by a guy who makes freon and spandex. DuPont gets a fifth of its revenue from its automotive division, so Holliday urged executives at a luncheon in Detroit’s storied Book Cadillac Hotel to consider a “Detroit Project” — a new Manhattan Project with all the innovations and none of the bombs.

Holliday says his idea is “not totally crazy” — which these days is another way of saying it’s a pretty good idea. As the Free Press reported, he envisions

[a] new-generation car as very safe and environmentally sensitive, perhaps using solar cells. The $5-billion project would be paid for through the public sale of bonds and would be operated on a tight timeline. It would involve the best scientists and engineers from the Detroit auto companies as well as Microsoft, Intel, Google, Boeing and DuPont.

Two days later in Washington, Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla) was making the same pitch to the Big Three themselves, only with an open-source twist. According to the New York Times’ Tom Zeller, Klein suggested:

that American automakers ought to form an research-and-development collective — a “Manhattan Project” of sorts, he says — to conceive and develop the very best concepts toward creating clean, efficient automotive technology. That body, Mr. Klein says, would then share and distribute this knowledge base and innovations, among all automakers.

Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli piped up that he would “totally subscribe to the concept,” although you have to wonder whether he wouldn’t totally subscribe to In These Times if it would help him get his piece of that $34 billion.

So why not a Motor City Project? A few reasons. While nothing is preventing the companies from such an ambitious transition, it’s just not in the DNA of the current management to oversee it. The notion of them relaxing their paranoid instincts to share the best research is hard to imagine. Also, the Big Three have already received a commitment of $25 billion for just such next-gen cars, but with no provision that they share information — or any strings attached, really.

A Detroit Project would mean a bailout with accountability: Take this money, share the engineering, and do something useful. The problem with the Big 3 is not the economy; it’s that this simple task is beyond them. So I guess we’re stuck with that bill that nobody likes.

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