Tracy Samilton

Auto Reporter/Producer

Tracy Samilton covers the auto industry, business, and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio.   She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly "bitten by the radio bug," and never recovered.  She took over the auto beat in January, 2009, just a few months before Chrysler and General Motors filed for bankruptcy.  Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio.   Her coverage of Michigan's Detroit Three automakers has taken her as far as Germany, and China. 

Tracy graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Literature. 

A new study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute indicates that older drivers are hanging onto their licenses for a longer period of time - while the number of young people with drivers' licenses is falling.

Both trends have safety implications.

Eighty percent of 18-year-olds had a driver's license in 1983.  That number had fallen to 65 percent by 2008.

Younger drivers tend to have more accidents.  So fewer of them who drive could make the nation's roads safer.

U.S. auto sales were a bright spot in a sea of bad economic news in August.  Most companies reported increases from the same month a year ago. 

Consumer sentiment in August fell to its lowest level since November 2007, stock markets dove, and fears of a double-dip recession increased. 

Those conditions usually flatten U.S. vehicle sales.

Yet car sales rode the storm, with sales at Chrysler  up 30%, GM,  up 18% and Ford,  up 11%. 

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

More hospitals in Michigan are requiring all their employees to get flu shots this year.

Last year, St. Joseph Mercy Hospital made flu shots for all employees mandatory for the first time.

Lakshmi Halasyamani is the Chief Medical Officer for the hospital.

She says some employees were upset about the requirement – but most of them came around after hearing the reasons for the new policy.

Michigan already has the North American International Auto Show.  

This year, the state will also host The Battery Show.  Michigan lured the advanced lithium-ion battery trade show from California. 

Of course, this is a trade show, not a consumer show, so unless you have an unusual interest in lithium-ion chemistries, you might want to stick to the Detroit Auto Show for now. 

The Cadillac Escalade is the number one target of thieves, according to an annual study by the Highway Loss Data Institute.

The Escalade has been in the top ten for many years in a row.

Matt Moore of the Institute says his theory is, thieves like to take vehicles that are associated with high status and glamour.

"There’s probably no other vehicle which is more likely to be featured or seen when you’re watching television and see coverage of a professional athlete or actor or movie star," says Moore.

The Detroit Public Library is forming a task force to figure out how to continue to provide its most essential services to residents.

The library laid off 79 staff this spring due to revenue shortfalls. 

Now, six of its branches may close because of the staffing cuts.

Executive Director Jo Anne Mundowney says revenues will likely continue to fall.  Ninety percent of the library's revenue comes from property taxes, which are declining.

Ford Motor Company sprang a surprise on the media world on Monday by announcing it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Toyota to jointly develop a rear-wheel drive hybrid system for SUVs and trucks.

Ford is the undisputed king of the pickup in the U.S.  Its F-series pickup has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for 25 years.

Toyota is the undisputed king of the hybrid - the Prius is the best-selling hybrid in the U.S.

Leading auto consulting firms are lowering their forecasts for U.S. auto sales in 2011. 

But it is unlikely to send automakers into a panic.

Some observers say the lower volume of sales means the U.S. is ripe for an incentives war among car companies.  

But Anthony Pratt with the auto consulting group R. L. Polk doesn’t see it happening.   He says a lot of the triggers that set off incentives wars in the past are missing. 

For one thing, U.S. car companies are making money at the lower volume of sales. 

Chevrolet kicked off the Dream Cruise with a parade of classic Chevys and fifty Chevy Volts down Woodward Avenue.

It’s the first Dream Cruise for GM CEO Dan Akerson. 

Akerson has been CEO of General Motors since September of last year.

Akerson says the passion people show for classic cars is no surprise.

"GM has been part of Detroit, Detroit’s been a major player globally in automotive, and the Dream Cruise is a celebration of the industry and the success and the rebirth of Detroit," Akerson said at an pre-parade celebration.

General Motors has confirmed that it will develop a Cadillac version of its flagship Chevy Volt.

Like the Volt, the Cadillac ELR will run on electricity made by a T-shaped lithium-ion battery, or a gasoline generator.

The car has had an on-again, off-again history. 

As a concept, the then-named Cadillac Converj made a big splash at the 2009 North American International Auto Show.

GM CEO Dan Akerson says he doesn’t know why the program was suspended.  The car came up at a meeting shortly after he took charge of GM.

Chevrolet kicks off the Woodward Dream Cruise weekend with a parade of classic Chevy vehicles alongside 50 Chevy Volts - GM's modern flagship electric car with an extended range gas engine.

Chevy is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Spokesman Rob Peterson says fifty Volts will cruise quietly down Woodward Avenue on battery power – alongside some classic Chevys with their big V-8 engines.

Customers were less satisfied with some Detroit car brands this year, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Satisfaction declined from last year for Chrysler, Lincoln and Buick.

Claus Fornell is with the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.  He's the founder of the index.

Fornell says the decline is especially worrisome because satisfaction with most Asian brands rose.

He says Detroit could be in trouble again if the trend continues.

Ann Arbor may soon hand out tickets for leaving a car idling. 

Proponents of the ordinance say car idling adds to pollution and wastes energy. 

The ban wouldn't apply to cars sitting in traffic.  But Ann Arbor Energy Commission Chair Wayne Appleyard says a lot of times, people are idling their cars unnecessarily.

staff / media.ford.com

Detroit Edison is taking the next step toward an electric car future. The electricity provider will power some of its own fleet using electricity.

Some of Detroit Edison's service calls will now be made by technicians driving Ford Transit Connect electric vans.

The van's range is about 80 miles - that's enough for an average day's worth of calls, says Detroit Edison President Steven Kurmas.

 Kurmas says more of the vans may be added to the fleet later.

More jobs building batteries could be on the way at A-1-2-3’s factory in Livonia.  The company just won a big contract with General Motors. 

A-123 builds batteries for hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.  

The company recently hired its thousandth employee at the Livonia plant, and the new contract will likely mean more jobs in the future, perhaps hundreds more jobs.   

But General Motors is not revealing anything about the kind of vehicles it will put the A-123 batteries in, or where those vehicles will be sold. 

General Motors executives says the company is becoming less complicated, and less wasteful, than it was in the past.   

GM CEO Dan Akerson says that simplicity -- along with a "fortress" balance sheet, and a lower cost structure will help GM break even in bad times, and make money in good times. 

Akerson and other top executives gave investors an in-depth briefing of the company's post-bankruptcy progress and plans for the long-term future.

GM has reduced its brands in the U.S to four, will focus on Chevrolet and Cadillac as its primary global brands, and will use regional brands such as Opel to help the company compete in specific markets like Germany.

GM's drastically reduced debt load also frees the company to follow through with product plans.  In the past, the company had to abandon car programs during recessions because of the pressing need to make debt payments.

"We think, just on cancelled product programs, we’ve probably blown a billion dollars a year in the last few years, as a result of having to pull back from things we’d already started," said Chief Financial Officer Dan Ammann.

GM regained its number one global sales position in the first six months of this year.  But Akerson says being number one is not the goal.

He says GM must make the customer the first priority.  And GM will focus on profitability, not market share.

GM's head of global marketing Joel Ewanick said GM will also set its sights on a new "stretch" challenge: being the first automaker to get one of its brands on the list of the top twenty-five most recognized global brands. 

That list includes a number of U.S. brands, including Apple and Coca-Cola.  But no car company's brand has yet made it onto the list.

About 100 people will “start their engines,” at the Michigan International Speedway this week. But it won’t be for a race. The MIS is lending its track to the U.S. Department of Transportation to test vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems.

Connected vehicle technology allows cars to communicate with other cars and the road.

Devices installed in a car warn a driver that a crash is imminent or that they’re about to run a red light.

General Motors

A top GM executive said Thursday that the automaker wants to peg United Auto workers' pay to their job performance. Workers who turn out quality vehicles would benefit financially.

"We want to pay for the performance," GM North American President Mark Reuss told reporters at an industry conference.   “All of those things that I get measured on, I want everybody else measured on, too.”

That would be a big change at GM, where the current UAW contract expires Sept. 14.

James Marvin Phelps / Wikimedia Commons

General Motors made $2.5 billion in the second quarter. 

That’s slightly more than GM’s cross-town rival, Ford Motor Company made in the same period.    Ford made $2.4 billion.

But both companies are forecasting a dip in profitability in the second half of this year. 

Most of GM’s second quarter profit came from North America, as truck and Chevrolet brand car sales rebounded.  North American President Mark Reuss says the strong performance came despite the slow economy and some unexpected events.

“I didn’t think the debt ceiling crisis was going to happen, " Reuss told reporters at an annual auto industry conference in Traverse City.  "I didn’t think the tsunami was going to happen, all those things you don’t know what’s going to happen.  But if you’ve got a business and an operational model that can handle it and adapt quickly, then I think that’s the key."

General Motors may have beaten analysts’ expectations, but the company is not yet meeting investors’ expectations.

This is GM’s sixth quarterly profit in a row, a dramatic improvement compared to the years leading up to the bankruptcy.

Chrysler Group / Flickr

The head of Chrysler and Fiat says the U.S. auto industry can meet tough new fuel efficiency requirements.  The tentative proposal will more than double the miles per gallon average for cars by the year 2025.

Federal officials, automakers, and the UAW agreed to raise the average miles per gallon to 54-and-a-half within the next 14 years. Right now, the average is 25 miles per gallon.  Critics say the new goal may not be technically feasible.  But Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne thinks it is:

"The powertrain guys...  are an incredible resource, an incredible talent.  Let them do their job."

But Marchionne is a skeptic when it comes to the role electric cars will play in meeting the new requirement.  He thinks it will be easier and cheaper to dramatically improve gasoline engines and transmissions.

Pobrecito33 / Flickr

United Auto Workers President Bob King says the relationship between the union and Detroit car companies has dramatically improved.  That could help the two sides reach an agreement more quickly in ongoing contract talks.  And King hopes it will help him sell the value of his union to foreign auto companies in the U.S.

The UAW is a third the size if was in 1979 mostly due to the downsizing of the Detroit Three.  Future hiring by Detroit car companies will likely be modest.  So the UAW wants to unionize foreign auto companies in the U.S. 

Union President Bob King says most of the companies have agreed to meet with his group.  He says the union needs to overcome strong anti-union sentiment, and convince the companies that the new UAW wants to help them be profitable.

“Probably the biggest question in their mind is, is this for real, is this a passing fancy with the UAW or is this for real?”

Prolonged and contentious contract talks could throw a monkey wrench in the unions’ plans to try to unionize a foreign automaker.  But King and Detroit automakers say they’re negotiating in a spirit of cooperation.

New fuel efficiency requirements proposed by the federal government will be hard to meet, according to many people who work in the auto industry.

The Obama administration recently announced a tentative proposal to roughly double the miles per gallon average for vehicles by the year 2025. 

Charlie Klein with General Motors says most people don’t understand how hard it is to improve fuel efficiency, without sacrificing affordability.

Some car companies -- like General Motors -- think Americans might be ready to buy more diesel cars, as gas prices rise.

GM will offer a diesel version of its Chevy Cruze in the U.S. next year.

Early diesels in the U.S. had performance problems, like engine knocking.

But Charlie Klein of GM says modern diesel engines are dramatically better than in the past.

"Those that have driven them, they are terrific to drive," says Klein.  "And of course they deliver terrific fuel efficiency."

A top Chrysler executive says Fiat and Chrysler have made good progress at merging their two cultures. 

The Italian car company was put in charge of the Detroit car company two years ago. 

This is Chrysler’s third attempt after failed mergers with German car company Daimler and an investment group, Cerberus Capital. 

Chrysler’s head of World Class Manufacturing Massimo Risi says it helps the companies have a lot in common, especially the ability to survive.

Some car companies are rolling out brighter colors on their vehicles,  especially on small cars.   

These days, you can order a lime-green Ford Fiesta, a coppery-orange Honda Fit, or a sunshiny-yellow Fiat 500.

Mazda has probably pushed the color envelope the furthest, with an attention-grabbing color for the Mazda 2 called “Spirited Green.”

It’s really green. 

Teresa Stafford is a lead designer for color and materials for Mazda.

media.gm.com / staff

General Motors will invest $328 million in its Flint Assembly Plant, to prepare the facility to build the next generation of Chevy and GMC full-size pickup trucks.

The plant just added a third shift earlier this year.

Joe Ashton is the UAW's GM Vice President.

He says the profitable trucks made at the Flint Assembly Plant are an important source of revenue for GM.

The UAW heads into contract negotiations next week with Ford, Chrysler and GM. 

Ashton says workers want a lot of different things from their new contract. 

user: ifmuth / flickr.com

Emissions from new vehicles dropped 12% between 2007 and this year, according to a new index by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. 

But it’s unclear if that trend will continue in the future.

For decades, there was little increase in the fuel efficiency of the new cars people bought. 

That changed starting in 2007.  Consumers turned to more fuel-efficient cars and they drove fewer miles, lowering overall emissions. 

But it probably wasn’t environmental concerns that caused the shift. 

The United Auto Workers is hosting an important, unpublicized meeting about CAFE standards today at Solidarity House in Detroit.  

CAFE governs car fuel efficiency in the U.S.

The meeting could help the government decide how fuel efficient cars must be by the year 2025. 

The UAW, Detroit car companies, the federal government, and environmental groups will likely try to reach a compromise on future CAFE requirements, somewhere between a 47 and 62 miles per gallon average.    

U.S. Army / Flickr

We spoke with Bridget Tuohey of the Red Cross of Southeast Michigan about today's urgent nationwide appeal for blood donations, after tornados and other disasters impacted the agency's ability to collect blood this summer.

Tuohey says Michigan has been critically short of blood for three weeks now. 

Normally, the state can turn to other areas of the country to get blood when there's not enough donation here.  That's not the case now, says Tuohey, and the Red Cross can no longer completely fill standing orders for blood from state hospitals.  Some hospitals are postponing elective surgeries as a result.

The Red Cross needs all blood types, but especially A-negative, B-negative and O-negative.   O-negative is called the universal blood type because it can be given to anyone in an emergency.

People who can donate can walk in to a clinic.  But Tuohey says it's best to make an appointment ahead of time by calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767.)

The availability of car leases practically disappeared during the recession.

But LeaseTrader.com says customer credit is recovering - and so is car leasing. 

John Sternal is Vice President of Marketing Communications for LeaseTrader.com.  He says more than 20 percent of new vehicles are now leased, including many small cars.

He says car leasing is more popular than ever before, because of a shifting attitude toward car ownership.

"Gone are the days when the majority of people will buy a car and hold onto it for fifteen years," says Sternal.

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