Speaking at the Society Automotive Engineers 2009 World Congress on Monday, Schwarzenegger said Washington has failed to create an energy policy that would help automakers develop fuel-efficient or alternative fuel vehicles more quickly.
"Washington hasn't been able to show any leadership in the last few years. It's been very frustrating," he said. "How can car manufacturers go and start changing their plans when there's no goal?"
Schwarzenegger said the Obama administration is now working to create a vision for U.S. energy policy. He said he has had conversations with federal officials and wants California to lead the country when it comes to setting low emission standards.
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California, 13 other states and the District of Columbia want the federal government to let them enact more stringent standards than the federal government's.
The states' regulations would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and trucks by 2016. A March 2008 decision prevents states from setting their own limits on greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, but President Barack Obama has ordered the EPA to reconsider the ruling.
Schwarzenegger said the nation should have one set of emission standards, but he would not say whether California would be willing to loosen its requirements in favor of a consistent national standard.
"We're marching forward and want to be an inspiration to the rest of the country and Washington," he said. "Other countries are lowering their emissions levels. We need to be leaders in cleaning up our act."
He also said he favors government efforts to help Detroit's ailing automakers. He defended previous remarks in which he told the domestic companies to "drop dead."
"That's not what I said," Schwarzenegger said. "I said, 'Michigan get off your butt and introduce cars of the future.'"
The governor said General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC have an opportunity to survive and make progress in creating cleaner vehicles.
"I think the car companies need help and they should get help. Washington should be a partner in this," he said. "I don't think taxpayers mind if you do it the right way."
The SAE World Congress is a four-day conference that focuses on research and development of vehicle components such as powertrains and exhaust systems, and materials such as metals and composites.
The annual event comes as automakers globally are experiencing a downturn in sales, as the recession keeps many consumers from making big purchases. Lower revenues are putting a pinch on research and development efforts at automotive companies and suppliers.
But SAE officials say despite the challenges facing the industry, it must forge ahead in creating new technologies for better, more efficient vehicles.
Schwarzenegger echoed those sentiments, adding that he's a fan of the cars Detroit produces, including two Hummers that he owns. He turned one into a hydrogen vehicle and converted the engine of another to run on biofuels. He said vehicles like Hummers and SUVs shouldn't be taken off the roads, but they should utilize different technologies to be more efficient and clean.
"There's nothing wrong with the Hummer, it's a great vehicle," he said. "We need to get off of gas engines and on clean fuel engines."
He also volunteered to be the first to film a television commercial -- for free -- promoting Detroit cars.
"Detroit is going to be back," he said, eliciting chuckles for the reference to his famous line from the "Terminator" movies.