Blog Post

What About a "Manhattan Project" for Detroit?

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

“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 (s DFT). 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.

[polldaddy poll=1170273]

6 Responses to “What About a "Manhattan Project" for Detroit?”

  1. Alan Browne

    The big three have a bloated brand system and they should reduce to two each. (Ordinary and luxury).

    They need to ambitiously embrace energy efficiency as their grail for success.

    Recent times have proven that they have no friends in big oil. Big oil’s big profits are not being called upon to help the big three? And yet a quarter worth of profit for Exxon alone is more than the bailout packages being discussed. At the same time the big 3 have laid off legions and been forced to draw down their cash to alarming levels. (A blessing I suppose that they had the cash to draw on).

    For that reason, big 3 should be doing everything possible to make cars that are not so dependent on oil energy. Reduce consumption by reducing vehicle weight and power. This has a cascading effect on energy consumption.

    A “Manhattan Project” for the big 3? Why not. But then let’s have a Manhattan project for the financial markets as well which systematically contrive to create unregulated markets which historically have always been proven unstable until regulated, resulting misery for the many and obscene profits for the few.

  2. The fact that he mentions “solar cells” on a car is proof that he is not a credible commentator. They provide far too little energy to be a meaningful contributor. An inane statement.

  3. Heather Kennedy

    Why not? Because it would be an ideas project. What does it say on the side of the iPhone 3G box sitting on my desk? Designed here, made in China? I’m not so sure that’s something Detroit could get behind. Even if it’s designed in Detroit, made in Silicon Valley.

    That’s just one thing I can find wrong with this idea. A good idea, but falling way, way short of fixing the problem.

  4. Detroit hasn’t gotten it right and they never will. They are bad at designing and building cars, they are better at making heavy duty artillery for the military. Get them off of making cars, let that be outsourced. Put their people on making lightrails, cutting down on not just commuter cars, but big trucks, and ‘Change’ america. Building new electric cars doesn’t mean anyone can afford nor will buy them. Especially when then gas companies will keep the prices low so everyone forgets about the gas crisis.

    Think about what we will get with the big 3 auto companies if they get the money for building green cars. Once released, will you go buy a tiny electric ford vehicle for 15k? I know I won’t. It’s a dead brand with a lifeless management and even if they do get the money, they are still planning on laying off over 10% of the staff. What good does that do?

  5. Why not a “Detroit Project”? One (hyphenated) word for you: anti-trust. Yes, the same misguided government without an energy policy that let’s oil companies get away with screwing the American public while raking in barrels of cash also prevents the US automakers from working together in the way you describe. The Japanese government, on the other hand, has been encouraging that kind of collaboration for a long time. Yes, I think a “Detroit Project” makes sense, but there would have to be significant modifications to existing legislation to get it done. As an example, actions to create a joint purchasing system that would actually save were greeted with anti-trust concerns (