Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – Detroit auto makers did not find the road to ruin on their own, rather a succession of cowardly presidential administrations allowed them to run off course, says California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Washington “screwed things up in the first place” and must “share the blame” for the crisis that has General Motors Corp., Chrysler LLC and Ford Motor Co. in various stages of strife, says Schwarzenegger, the marquee attraction at this year’s SAE 2009 World Congress.

Such culpability extends from administrations of decades past to the current president, Barack Obama, he says, adding Detroit would bounce back with the establishment of a national energy policy and a commitment by auto makers to exploit the technologies the policy would inspire.

The charismatic former action-movie star and professional bodybuilder arrives more than 30 minutes late to polite applause. And he is a marked man, having been accused of telling Detroit in 2007 to drop dead because of its alleged intransigence to promote alternative-powertrain technology.

Schwarzenegger explains he did not express ill wishes for Detroit auto makers but instead encouraged them to “get off (their) butts” and join the fight against the damaging effects of large-scale fossil-fuel consumption.

“We ought to be leaders in cleaning up our act and fighting global warming,” he says, adding the U.S. track record for reducing vehicle emissions is “embarrassing.”

In recent years, the U.K. has reduced its carbon-dioxide emissions 25% to match its 1990 output. The U.S., Schwarzenegger says, has managed only a 3% improvement.

He suggests a restructured fuel-tax structure would go a long way to encourage consumers to consider vehicles featuring engines that burn diesel fuel or ethanol. But he stops short of declaring a favorite.

“I will not pick here today a winner,” he says. “The market should decide.”

In the absence of such tax incentives, Schwarzenegger goes easy on Detroit car companies, longtime proponents of fuel-thirsty V-8 engines. “It’s easy to stick with the status quo,” he says.

But that does not portend a solution to the nation’s future economic stability or the health of its ecosystems. “We have no vision,” he says. “We can protect the economy and the environment all at the same time.”

On the heels of an Environmental Protection Agency ruling last week that paves the way for a renewed debate about the viability of state-determined vehicle-emissions mandates, Schwarzenegger says he favors a national standard.

This despite California’s leading role in pushing for its own standard that would force auto makers to exceed current national fuel-economy mandates.

Exuding charm, “The Terminator” slowly wins over a standing-room-only crowd that had grown increasingly impatient as it waited for his arrival.

Schwarzenegger declares a love for Detroit-produced vehicles. Prodded by discussion-moderator Phil Lebeau of CNBC, he elicits enthusiastic applause when he declares: “There is nothing wrong with the Hummer. The Hummer is a great vehicle.”

But Detroit’s powertrains need updating, Schwarzenegger says, noting he has refitted one of his two Hummers to burn hydrogen while the other runs on biofuels. He also has a Jeep he modified with a 6.6L diesel engine that generates 500 hp and 40% less CO2 emissions than the gasoline-driven mill it replaced.

The audience further warms to him when he says he supports a “cash-for-clunkers” measure that would provide consumers with a financial incentive to trade in older vehicles that spew high levels of harmful emissions for newer, more environmentally friendly vehicles.

The discussion about Detroit’s fortunes come as Chrysler and GM find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Ford is struggling mightily to avoid dipping into the U.S. Treasury Dept.’s pocket for emergency aid.

Schwarzenegger acknowledges there is a groundswell of opposition to such financing, but dismisses it as “a huge amount of nonsense,” adding the Detroit auto makers “should get help.”

And when Detroit turns around, as he expects, Schwarzenegger says he will offer his services as a celebrity endorser – free of charge. He also delivers his trademark line: “I’ll be back.”

Pausing until the guffaws die down, Lebeau elicits more laughter, saying: “They were waiting for that line.”

emayne@wardsauto.com