"It's a moment of transition," says Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in auto issues. "We are looking at a world where alternative fuels and technologies will play a central role."
The U.S. auto industry was always on the leading edge of America's technological and economic progress. Whether it was the automatic transmission or anti-lock brakes, it was usually American automakers that developed them. Only in the late 1970s and 1980s did the Big 3feel threatened as gas shortages sent customers to fuel-efficient Japanese imports.
"Japan rethought the whole approach," says Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. "You didn't have to have an acre of sheet metal for your hood."
But the Big 3 never fully embraced small cars, which weren't as profitable as bigger cars. And they were late to the hybrid game, watching environmentally conscious consumers flock to Toyota's Prius. So when gas prices hit new highs in the fall, they were left short with primarily big gas guzzlers to sell.
Now they are playing catch-up, vowing to use government bailout money and the current lull in sales to rethink and retool.
Job losses associated with the Big 3's unraveling have been staggering.
Since 2005, the Big 3 have announced cuts of at least 150,000 jobs through 2011, the Center for Automotive Research says. GM recently announced it will trim an additional 10,000 white-collar workers worldwide, 3,400 of them in the U.S.
But Detroit automakers still employ more than foreign car firms do. GM, Ford and Chrysler support direct employment of 239,341 and an additional 973,969 indirect jobs, the Center for Automotive Research says. Foreign plants employ about 113,000 in the U.S.
As a condition of their loans, Congress has insisted that GM and Chrysler become leaner and more cost-competitive with non-union foreign automakers that have U.S. factories. Experts give them a fighting chance.
"There is some chance that GM, Ford and Chrysler are going to survive," says Sophia Koropeckyj, managing director at Moody's Economy.com.
If they do, it will be because they worked hard to redefinetheir bloated image.
"Will the business look the same as today? Absolutely not," says Ian Beavis ofNielsen IAG Automotive Group, an advertising tracking firm. "It's going to be a leaner, more-focused industry than the past and is going to have a high level of government involvement."
Rebirth of the American car?
The American car of the future could be a plug-in electric. Or powered by natural gas. Or even hydrogen. The surest bet is a more efficient version of today's gasoline engines.
More cars will be designed to fit particular needs, but those needs will cross borders. And it's less likely that vehicles will be entirely for a single market, such as the American full-size pickup.
"People of the world will be driving more similar products," says Chrysler President Jim Press. Chrysler recently negotiated a deal that could bring Italy's Fiat small cars into the Chrysler lineup in exchange for an equity stake. Globalization is only the latest trend for the industry. "There are going to be jobs that are generated."
If American-made cars were to disappear, there are plenty of fans who would miss them. Frank Smeekes, for instance. Smeekes, an auto industry consultant for a firm called Russell Reynolds, loves American cars.
"Cars are more than just a means to go from A to B," he says.