Many of the new production vehicles and concepts revealed during media days at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week offer proof that automakers are serious about building cars and trucks Americans will want to buy.
The only question is when consumers will want to buy them. The answer is up to the Obama administration.
Short-term issues are how quickly the U.S. economy will bounce back and how effective the new administration's stimulus package will be in encouraging consumers to purchase vehicles.
Legislation before Congress would give consumers a tax break to buy a car or truck. The bill, which is supported by the National Automobile Dealers Association, would let consumers deduct auto loan interest and state sales and excise taxes from their federal income tax.
Another idea gaining support is a cash-for-clunkers program that would pay consumers to get rid of their old, less safe, less fuel-efficient vehicles.
Such incentives could stimulate near-term demand for vehicles such as the 2010 Ford Taurus and 2010 Buick LaCrosse, which received favorable reviews at the Detroit show.
A longer-term issue is the price of fuel. At the show, automakers displayed an array of fuel-efficient vehicles with impressive technology, including several types of hybrids, clean diesels and pure electric vehicles. Some are on sale or will be soon. Others are coming later.
But because advanced technology is costly to develop, there usually is a price premium for greener cars and trucks. Now that the price of gasoline is below $2 a gallon again, consumers are less likely to buy the more-fuel-efficient vehicles.
Manufacturers can't force consumers to buy vehicles they don't want. If the Obama administration is committed to fuel-efficient vehicles in the United States, government cannot simply mandate that automakers produce them. Expensive, supergreen vehicles will collect dust on dealership lots.
Instead, Washington must stimulate consumer demand. A carrot could be a significant tax credit for purchasing ultrahigh fuel-efficiency vehicles. A stick would be a gasoline tax that raises the pump price to painful levels.
Automakers have showed they are developing the right technologies. Now it's up to Congress and the White House to help get the vehicles to market.