One of the shrewdest things the domestic auto industry could do is begin planning to produce light-rail systems.
We have the Obama administration for at least four years, and at the speed the president is moving, were liable to have a mandate for universal mass transit by suppertime next Monday. That means runaway demand from darned near every city and burb in the nation.
The technology, manufacturing processes and even the supply base are related. Ka-doong, ka-doong, ka-doong. Engineers and designers whove been developing cars and light trucks for their whole careers might enjoy a change of pace. And a little cross-training might be just the boost for morale that HR has been looking for.
General Motors and Ford have experience in mass transit. Until GM sold its Electro-Motive division four years ago, the automaker was one of the two largest U.S. producers of diesel locomotives. Of course, that wasnt light rail, but it is related.
GM also was one of the biggest North American producers of mass transit buses until it folded the business in the 1980s. GMs stake in rubber-wheeled mass transit is one of the reasons it regularly lobbied against light-rail systems back then.
In the 1970s, Ford built a one-off, rubber-wheeled automatic people mover that for several years ran between the Hyatt hotel and the nearby Fairlane shopping center in the automakers hometown of Dearborn, Mich. It was dubbed a horizontal elevator.
Buy-American mania in Washington could give Ford and GM a head start if legislation requires light-rail systems be built in the United States; most of the existing light-rail producers are outside the country.
It makes so much sense, yet I can almost hear the arguments:
There is no capital to spare for a project that doesnt relate to cars and trucks. True, but if federal funding shakes loose, wouldnt it be nice to at least have a plan?
OK, light rail would be competition for cars and trucks. But if its coming anyway, why not get a piece of the action?
Yes, I know Michael Moore mentioned the same thing a few months ago. But how dumb would it be to ignore a good idea just because it was supported by someone who usually doesnt have a clue?
For the record, it was Paul Sichert, not Moore, who mentioned the idea to me.
Sichert was vice president of public affairs at Budd Co. for more than 30 years. Sichert reminded me that for decades -- until Budd sold off its rail car business in 1987 -- the suppliers UAW-represented workers built rail cars and automotive bodies in the same suburban Philadelphia factory.
Now thats something to think about.