On the front page of the New York Times December 4, a four-column photo shows Rick Wagoner, chairman of General Motors, riding shotgun in a Chevy Malibu hybrid on his way from Detroit to Washington. He’s looking down, with an appropriately chastened expression, as the car fight its way through traffic.

Normally, Wagoner and his Big Three equivalents fly to DC on their own planes, and get behind the wheel only to drive prototypes onto show stages. This is all new for a Detroit not used to talking to politicians with a begging bowl in hand.

A CNN poll shows that a majority of Americans oppose an automaker bailout. With the pre-Obama Congress still in place, there’s a good chance that Republicans have the votes to derail a package. Ford still has its head above water, but both GM and Chrysler say they could run out of cash before the end of the year. That’s a matter of weeks!

Yes, Detroit’s automakers made this mess. They’ve been ignoring calls to green their fleets for decades. The Department of Transportation reported, “The shift in consumer preferences towards smaller, more fuel-efficient passenger cars and light trucks…appears to be permanent…To improve the overall future prospects for the domestic motor vehicle manufacturers, a quality and price-competitive motor vehicle must be produced.” Elizabeth Kolbert writes about this report in the latest New Yorker. It was drafted in 1980.

 Letting the automakers fail, however, is not a good strategy, particularly now. The carmakers are in fact tooling up to produce fuel-efficient cars the public may actually want to buy. Ford just announced a pair of plug-ins, including a transit van (2010) and a Focus-sized compact (2011). But if they want to get the bailout money, facing a surly Congress, they’ll have to come up with an excellent spending plan. The cash has to go to leaning and greening the company, not business as usual. Let’s hope that, on their long car rides to DC, the automaker chieftains will have time to draft back-of-the-envelope solutions.

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