California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm kicked off the 2009 Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Congress this morning by driving home the need for alternative fuel vehicle technologies and promising that government would work harder to support their development.
Schwarzenegger repeatedly told the overflow crowd at Detroit's Cobo Hall that the move toward alternative fuels has lagged, largely because industry engineers and lawmakers haven't been committed enough to transitioning away from gasoline.
"The whole thing is going way too slow," Schwarzenegger told the audience, which was composed mostly of auto industry engineers. "It's largely due to the (government) policies ... but I think the car manufacturers themselves have been very stubborn in not moving fast enough because it's easy to stay with the status quo."
Schwarzenegger added that the industry needs to work on "zero-emission vehicles" (pure electric cars), in addition to hybrids and so-called plug-in hybrids, such as the proposed Chevy Volt. "It will be good for the environment, good for the economy," he said.
Asked a question about the cost of such technologies, Schwarzenegger compared battery and hydrogen technology cars to cell phones, which have dramatically dropped in price over the past two decades because of customer demand. "Now, in Third World countries, there are people running around with cell phones," he said. The California governor also told the audience that in 1920, 28 percent of U.S. vehicles were electric, and he said that industry took the wrong fork in the road back then by going to gasoline "largely because the policy wasn't there" to push it in the right direction.
Schwarzenegger's comments were echoed by Granholm. "We are not going to be Luddites," Granhold declared. "We are not going to be resistant to change." Granholm added that the state of Michigan is investing in six "centers of excellence" dedicated to developing alternative fuel technologies. Four of the centers are working on biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, and two are creating battery solutions for electric cars. Michigan, she said, is also helping foster partnerships between Detroit automakers and battery manufacturers, including LG Chem, A123 Systems and Dow Chemical, among others.
Granholm acknowledged that the research and development required to make such technological jumps would be financially difficult, especially in today's economic climate. She said; however, that government's push toward a renewable energy economy is necessary and she referred to the Obama administration's handling of Detroit automakers as "tough love."
Schwarzenegger's appearance at the SAE World Congress was seemingly welcomed by the crowd, despite his well-publicized previous comments that Detroit "needs to get off its butt." Show attendees arrived early for Schwarzenegger's speech, filling the Cobo Hall Theater and standing in the aisles of the trade show, where many snapped pictures with their camera phones while the California governor answered questions. The Schwarzenegger was invited by SAE to support the conference theme, "Racing to Green Mobility."
Schwarzenegger told the engineering audience he is a big fan of Detroit, explaining that he owns 12 cars, including a hydrogen-powered Hummer. He added that he hopes Detroit automakers will work more closely with government as a means of fostering innovation and putting the industry back on its feet. "Yes, they are down," he said of domestic automakers. "But there is one thing that is certain: They're going to be back. The car industry is saying, âI'll be back.'"