March 7, 2009 at 1:00 am

Auto panel seeks long-term answers

Group conducting broad-ranging talks, set to meet Monday with carmakers in Detroit.

WASHINGTON -- The federal auto task force that arrives in Detroit on Monday has spent the past two weeks meeting with a range of industry players, pushing its work beyond the automakers' immediate cash crisis and strongly hinting at a longer term goal.

Accounts of the task force's discussions with Detroit Three executives, industry trade groups and analysts suggest the advisers to the Obama administration's cabinet-level committee have gathered plenty of the basic financial information necessary to assess the need for immediate aid. But the group's focus appears to extend far beyond the balance sheet, looking more deeply into the question of what a successful U.S. auto industry would look like in the long run.

The group held the first meeting of its cabinet officers Friday, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top White House economic adviser Larry Summers. Two key advisers to the group, former Wall Street executive Steve Rattner and longtime union restructuring adviser Ronald Bloom, are scheduled to travel to Detroit on Monday for meetings with the General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, as well as labor officials.

Staffers briefed the cabinet-level members of the task force on the result of more than two weeks of meetings with a broad swath of the industry. According to an administration source who spoke on condition of anonymity, the meeting included discussion of "broader industry dynamics including stresses on the supplier base."

Task force advisers also met Friday with representatives of auto dealers and with auto experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

What is unclear to nearly everyone in contact with the task force is what it will decide, or when, in terms of aid requests from GM and Chrysler, as well as aid for auto suppliers, many of whom are believed to be in imminent danger of collapse without some federal assistance.

But the picture emerging of the group's work is one of broad-ranging discussions and a constant exchange of data.

Sean McAlinden, vice president of the Center for Automotive Research, said he was asked about issues ranging from his opinion of the viability plans that GM and Chrysler submitted to the government in mid-February to his long-term market trend forecasts and his assessment of the relative strengths of all the major global automakers, including Detroit's Big Three.

"They also asked what other issues did we think were important," said McAlinden, who met with the task force last week. "Those guys are just working their brains out. I was impressed."

Task force members also asked him to recommend other experts they should meet. "They've been speaking with everybody," McAlinden said. "They're learning very quickly."

The task force also invited the chief executive of Chrysler's prospective alliance partner, Fiat SpA. At a meeting Thursday led by Rattner and Bloom, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne was asked about how an alliance with the Italian automaker would benefit Chrysler, and about European market and industry trends.

According to a Fiat official who accompanied Marchionne, the task force leaders were soaking up as much information as possible and tapping into Marchionne's international perspective.

Marchionne said he was impressed by the task force members. "They were intelligently critical of all things that were relevant," he said, "and rightly so. You're looking at taxpayers' funding."

In addition to seeking ways to help the ailing industry to recover financially, the Obama administration wants to push the sector to move faster in developing cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars.

"Because taxpayer money is being used, there's an effort to include fuel-economy in the discussion," said Craig Cather, president of forecasting and consulting firm CSM Worldwide of Northville.

But, he said, "future technologies are really secondary to the current priority, which is the industry's survival."

Still, the White House sent strong signals this week that it is considering energy and environmental issues alongside financial matters. White House officials said discussions of a single, national greenhouse gas standard, which could supersede attempts by California and other states to set their own standards, are part of the restructuring process.

"We're continuing to answer a lot of questions and helping with the data gathering," GM Chief Financial Office Ray Young said. "Every day we're responding to questions from the task force. We're in dialogue."

Ann Wilson, spokeswoman for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, a partsmakers trade group, called exchanges of information with the task force "almost daily."

Staff Writer Rob Snell contributed to this report. Reach Gordon Trowbridge at (202) 662-8738.