Imagine Detroit as the premier international center for advanced vehicle technology. Imagine the world following our lead in the effort to reduce emissions. Imagine Detroit converting to a global war on terror footing as the Arsenal of Democracy, building what our military and our nation need for victory.

We did it before. We can do it again.

The Big Three now clearly get that global warming and oil dependency are serious problems for the nation and for Detroit. A cynic could be excused for thinking that the Big Three promote economy-wide solutions to greenhouse gas emissions to shield themselves. I choose to believe they are sincere. Besides, it is hard to imagine an economy-wide solution that wouldn’t require significant improvements in automotive fuel economy or tailpipe emissions. Vehicles are going to have to change, and fast.

And Washington isn’t wasting time. Just this week, President Bush signed an executive order directing his agencies to prepare regulations to raise fuel economy And a bipartisan consensus is emerging in Congress that seems ready to demand that automakers improve the fuel economy of their new vehicles by 4% per year well into the future.

The Big Three (plus Toyota) continue to resist a 4% per year mandate, but none have said it is technically impossible. Last month GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz with characteristic bluntness told an industry conference, “We have the technology to do it. It’s just not affordable.” Automakers estimate that ten years of 4% per year improvements would cost them $114 billion, with $85 billion as the Big Three’s share. We all know that the Big Three just don’t have that kind of cash.

It’s time to take the high ground. It’s time for actions to replace words. America needs Detroit to return to the ‘can do‘ spirit that once made Detroit America’s greatest military asset. One military expert said that America’s oil dependency and the global warming it exacerbates create “a clear and present danger – economically, militarily, diplomatically and environmentally.” Bob Lutz, at the industry conference last month, perhaps playing the military card, suggested an initiative on the scale of World War II’s Manhattan Project to achieve the technological advances we need to break our nation’s addiction to oil. The stakes are as high today as they were in 1942.

Call it the Detroit Project and give it a Manhattan-Project-size budget–$30 billion—to invest over the next five years.

Because it just makes sense to treat vehicles and fuels as a single integrated system, the Detroit Project needs oil companies and automakers working jointly. And because the Detroit Project is in the national interest, the oil companies and automakers need to work jointly with the federal government. Since 2001, federal spending on developing cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable sources of energy has totaled $12 billion. The Detroit Project should get the same annual federal spending rate ($2 billion per year for five years for a total of $10 billion), but focused on fuels and vehicles. But not without committing to oil savings – no one can afford handouts these days. When the Project is successful, the oil companies and automakers will benefit financially, so they should put up the remaining $20 billion. Our automakers can hardly afford not to make this investment – they will continue losing market share, profits, and jobs to more fuel efficient manufacturers if they don’t.

The Detroit Project should focus on finding breakthrough technologies that help achieve and sustain a 20% to 25% reduction in oil used by Americans for transportation along with a similar reduction in associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The key to the Manhattan Project’s huge success–in just four short years–was the synergy created by bringing together the best and brightest scientists from industry, government, and academia in pursuit of a common purpose. The Detroit Project needs to cast a broad net, gathering the best thinkers from nonprofit organizations and labor as well as from industry, government, and academia.

We have the know-how and we must now get the can-do to solve the serious problems we created by our oil dependency. It’s time for all of us to give up our comfortable but vulnerable entrenched positions and establish a competitive, clean, and efficient future for our industry and a cleaner, more secure future for our country. It’s time for the Detroit Project.