Detroit Automakers Face Extinction

In recent decades, U.S. automakers ignored both fuel economy and beauty. If they don't change their ways, other companies and other means of transportation will succeed — and Detroit will become a dinosaur.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We've been talking a lot about the precarious state of America's biggest auto companies. Well, our commentator, Andrei Codrescu, has these thoughts on the ups and downs of the industry and where it is headed.

ANDREI CODRESCU: Most Americans are part car. I'm an American, so I should know. When I came to this country from Romania, I first landed in Detroit. I may have been the only human in Motor City who didn't drive.

I mooched rides instead and got to know my new country from the passenger seat. All my friends loved their cars, and there was a special music written for their cars, and almost everything they did had to do with music and driving.

America's love affair with the car was a big deal. In the years since landing in America, I saw the car change as people change. The optimistic age of fins and chrome of the late '50s and early '60s gave way to the practical station wagons and Japanese imports of the 1970s, a time when both new suburban middle class and a recession made it necessary to simultaneously drive longer distances and conserve.

Automakers gave little thought to either aesthetics or love. Beauty and music were not on the agenda as the industry teetered from the blows of imports and new regulation. By the mid '90s, it looked like the car industry was a dinosaur awaiting to breathe its last, and then miracles started happening.

Gas was cheap again, te middle class had money, and the music started playing in incredibly improved stereo systems inside new spaceship interiors. America was on the move again, and the car came back to take its place in the mythology of this country in the hearts of the young, not to speak of the fact that far from being the luxury, the car was more and more of a necessity, as suburbs stretched into excerpts and excerpts into strip malls.

For a while, it looked as if the whole continent would be paved to over for strip malls stretching into infinity until there is was no more horizon or no more gas. Then there was no more gas. Well, almost. At nearly five dollars a gallon, our love for Humvees cooled quicker than a bar-room romance.

The morning after, the industry found itself once more subject to the tyranny of oil and the chokehold of changing needs. The morning after, the suddenly sober carmakers must have thought back on the oil crisis of the '70s and wondered why they hadn't done a thing then. They must have also thought back with some remorse, if such thing is possibly in the marketplace, about how they always sacrificed vision for quick profits and how they always forgot what they learned.

This time is different, though. There just isn't enough oil to last very long. The age of fossil fuels is over, and the carmakers will die if they don't adapt. This time, the workers whose livelihoods depend on the car in more ways than one should not be made to suffer from layoffs and be punished for the shortsightedness of their employers. This time, the government should bail them out both for practical reasons and because, after all, Americans love their cars.

But this time should be the last time. If the carmakers don't start making both beautiful, nonpolluting alternative fuel cars, they deserve the fate of the dinosaurs. Different means of transport and different vehicles will eventually take their place. Even if we have to use bicycles and wings for a while, the music won't stop playing. America rocks too much for that.

(Soundbite of music; The Doobie Brothers, "Rockin' Down the Highway")

BLOCK: Andrei Codrescu, poet, novelist, and editor of the online journal called corpse.org.

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