Tracy Samilton

Auto Reporter/Producer

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.

Tracy graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Literature. Before beginning her journalism career, she spent time working as a legal assistant at various firms in the Ann Arbor area.

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Auto/Economy
6:47 pm
Wed May 11, 2011

Toyota's profits plummet 77% in first three months of year

Toyota’s profits fell 77-percent in the first three months of the year.  That’s in part because the strong yen versus the dollar eroded the Japanese company’s profitability overseas. 

The company’s global production also plummeted after the tsunami damaged many Toyota parts suppliers in Japan.

Aaron Bragman is an analyst with I-H-S Automotive.    He says Toyota is, at least, on the mend from last year’s recall crisis.

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Auto/Economy
9:38 pm
Tue May 10, 2011

GM will (possibly) hire new workers as its invests in U.S. plants

General Motors has announced it will invest a total of $2 billion in 17 of its U.S. plants. 

The investment also means the company will re-hire its 1,357 laid-off workers, and possibly hire hundreds of new workers, especially if demand for GM cars continues to improve.

At GM's Toledo Transmission plant, UAW members gather to hear about what it means for their plant:  a $200 million upgrade and the opportunity to build a new, fuel-efficient 8-speed transmission.

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Auto/Economy
4:57 pm
Fri May 6, 2011

Train stations in Michigan celebrate "National Train Day" with Saturday events

Saturday is National Train Day and events are being held across Michigan, including at many Amtrak stations. 

Tim Fischer is with the Michigan Environmental Council. 

He says gas prices are going up and so is train ridership. 

But Fischer says the same can’t be said of state and federal investments in the U.S. rail system. 

" So we certainly do need more funding for our rail systems, they are important assets that we should not be abandoning."

Here is a list of events:

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Politics
11:40 am
Thu May 5, 2011

Yachts shouldn't be eligible for tax write-off, says Michigan Congressman

Michigan Congressman Gary Peters wants to close a loophole that allows people to write off the interest they pay on their yacht loans.

Peters says current law allows people to deduct the interest on two residences.

"But the way the deduction is written, it’s anything that has a toilet, a kitchen and bedding, so yachts qualify, and so you’ll find that many people write off the interest in financing their yachts."

Peters says the loophole cost the U.S. Treasury a billion dollars in 2004, the last time the Congressional Budget Office examined the issue.

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Education
11:33 am
Thu May 5, 2011

MI Teachers' union first in nation to pick up health insurance

The Dearborn Federation of Teachers will be the first teachers' union in the nation to take over health insurance plans from a school district.

The union will provide two plans, an HMO, and a PPO, to its members.  Both are Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan plans.

Chris Sipperley is president of the union. 

She says Dearborn Public Schools demanded that teachers go from paying $0 a month to insure their families, to $625.

That’s when the union decided it could do better.

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Auto/Economy
10:52 pm
Tue May 3, 2011

Chrysler surviving

A new kind of customer began showing up at Schultz Motors of Milan after Chrysler ran a defiant, two-minute ad during the Superbowl -- young guys who’d never owned a Chrysler before.  But they wanted the car rap star Eminen was driving in that ad. 

Tyler Schultz says it helps that the 200 is a more appealing car than its predecessor the Sebring.

"The interior is very well-appointed, it's very driver-friendly, and you can see the list price is $24,000.  So with the incentives on top of that it comes in really affordable.  So this car’s got a lot of bang for the buck."

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Auto/Economy
5:31 pm
Mon May 2, 2011

Japanese parts shortages will likely show up in April car sales

Car sales in the U.S. likely went up about ten percent last month, compared to the same month a year ago. 

U.S. sales for April will be reported Tuesday.

Analyst Jesse Toprak of Truecar.com says sales would have been better, but the disasters in Japan greatly diminished the supply of car parts, especially for Honda and Toyota.

Both companies have drastically slowed production of cars, and the slowdown could continue through the rest of the year.

Toprak says Japanese car companies typically do well when gas prices increase.

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Auto/Economy
2:03 pm
Mon May 2, 2011

Chrysler makes money for the first time since 2006

Chrysler posted a profit in the first quarter of this year:  $116-million.

It's not a lot of money.   But any amount of profit is a morale-booster when a company has been through the ordeal of bankruptcy.

The profit compares to a loss in the first three months of 2010 of $197-million.

Chrysler has been steadily reducing its losses every quarter since it went through bankruptcy in 2009. 

But this is the first clear indication that Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne's turnaround plan for Chrysler is getting the company back into reasonable financial shape.

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Auto/Economy
9:56 pm
Tue April 26, 2011

Ford making money but challenges ahead

Ford announced its biggest first quarter profit since 1998.  The company made 2.6 billion dollars, and predicts it will remain profitable for the rest of the year despite some economic headwinds. 

But Ford also faces some unique challenges if it wants to keep growing.

Company CEO Alan Mulally likes to joke about the “small home improvement loan” of $23-billion the company took out in 2006.   That money paid for the company to improve its products and avoid bankruptcy. 

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Auto/Economy
11:58 am
Tue April 26, 2011

Electric cars score big in safety tests

A Chevy Volt being crash tested. The big batteries in the car make them safter according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf top ratings for safety in crash tests.  The results could ease any lingering concerns people might have about the safety of electric cars.

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the results show that customers don't have to trade safety for environmentally friendly electric cars.  And the heavy batteries in the cars actually make them safer.

"We can have environmentally friendly, green vehicles and not give up the safety advances that we've made in the bargain… Even though they are small cars in their dimensions, they are considerably heavier than other small cars weighing as much as some midsize or even large cars.  And that is a safety advantage."

Car companies say the huge batteries inside electric cars shut down in the event of a crash to greatly reduce the risk of an electrical fire.

Both the Leaf and the Volt cost more than most similar sized small cars. But Rader says as the price of gas goes up, and the cost of producing the cars goes down, electric cars will become more economical.

Auto/Economy
11:34 am
Tue April 26, 2011

Ford makes out big in the first quarter

In the first three months of the year, Ford made $2.5 billion.
Marcus Wong Flickr

Ford Motor Company announced a profit of more than $2.5 billion in the first three months of the year.

That's the company's best quarterly performance since 1998.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally expects the rest of 2011 to be profitable as well - despite some headwinds like low U.S. consumer confidence and rising commodity and gas prices:

"Even though it's a slower recovery and the fuel prices are moving up, the demand is there and we are really pleased to have the product line that the consumers really do want and value."

Mulally says he's  optimistic that car sales will continue improving:

"In the automobile industry, the pentup demand is tremendous, you know the average age of car ownership is over ten years now."

Mulally says Ford also improved its balance sheet by reducing its debt by another $2.5 billion in the first quarter.

Ford took out a huge loan in 2006 before the recession.  That loan enabled the company to improve its cars during the economic downturn and avoid bankruptcy.

Since last year, the company has paid off $17 billion of debt.

Auto/Economy
5:54 pm
Fri April 22, 2011

China will be tough competitor to U.S. in electric cars in future, says study

Fears that China is destined for dominance of the electric vehicle and advanced battery industry may be overblown, suggests a new study by the management consulting firm PRTM.

Yes, the Chinese government is strongly committed to the electrification of cars and trucks.  After all, China is even more dependent on foreign oil than the U.S.  And its cities are fouled by pollution caused in large part by internal combustion engines.

And yes, China has spent five times more than the U.S. on helping its electric car industry.

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Auto/Economy
11:51 pm
Mon April 18, 2011

Hydrogen fuel cell cars fight possible funding cuts (video)

Battery electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt count the federal government as a good friend these days.  The government has spent two and a half billion dollars in just a few years to boost battery technology. 

But there’s another way to propel an electric car– with hydrogen.  And proponents are making a last-ditch effort to convince the Obama administration that fuel cell cars are ready for prime time.  

Take Honda’s fuel cell electric car, the FCX Clarity.  It can go about 240 miles on a tank of hydrogen fuel.  About 60 miles to the gallon if you want to compare it to gasoline.  The only emission from the car is water so pure you could drink it

(Here's a video of me taking the FCX Clarity for a test drive)

There are emissions from the process used to create hydrogen, from natural gas.  But the emissions are about 60% less than comparable emissions from cars using internal combustion engines.

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Health care
5:11 pm
Sun April 17, 2011

Many Michigan hospitals lost both patients and money in 2009

Many hospitals lost both money and patients in 2009, according to Michigan Health Market Review.

In 2009, Detroit hospitals lost $58 million, with the biggest losses at Henry Ford, St. John, and Trinity Health Systems. 

Allan Baumgarten publishes the review.

He says the hospitals lost the money on their investments in the stock market, rather than patient care.

"And when the market crashed at the end of 2008, that had a really harmful effect on several of these hospitals."

Baumgarten thinks hospitals will show a profit in 2010 and this year because the stock market has recovered. 

All is not well in other areas, however. 

Fewer patients are using Michigan hospitals.  That"s because many people lost their health insurance -- or their employers switched them to high-deductible health insurance plans.

Baumbarten says high-deductible plans cut down on surgeries for conditions that are not life-threatening. 

"If the doctor says, 'I'd like you to have this scoping procedure on your knee, it will improve your golf game,' a couple years ago, somebody might have said, 'well, it will only cost me $100 out-of-pocket, so why not?'  But if I've got a high-deductible health plan, this procedure might cost me $2,000 out-of-pocket."

Revenue at thirty-three other hospitals across the state also dropped in 2009, led by losses at the University of Michigan and several other health systems which lost large amounts in their stock market portfolios.

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Auto/Economy
6:06 pm
Tue April 12, 2011

Detroit 3 ready to hire - but not at previous level

The Detroit Three are poised to create new auto jobs for the first time in years.  But an expert at the Center for Automotive Research warns that auto manufacturing jobs will never recover to their former levels. 

Ford, GM, and Chrysler closed a lot of plants over the past ten years, so many of the remaining plants are working at full capacity as new car sales improve. 

Sean McAlinden is an economist with the Center for Automotive Research .

"Almost the last layoff at GM and Ford have been recalled," says McAlinden, "so any additional production through the summer requires new hiring."

McAlinden says the Detroit Three will likely hire 35,000 people in the next five years.  

But that’s only about a third of the people who lost jobs with the companies in the past few years.   

McAlinden says auto jobs will plateau after 2015, which is why Michigan still needs to diversify its economy.

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Auto/Economy
6:49 pm
Mon April 11, 2011

Toyota tells dealers to plan for inventory shortfalls - and workers to plan for extra days off

Toyota will shut down its U.S. factories five extra days this spring because of parts shortages – and warns its American dealers to expect inventory shortfalls this summer. 

Rick Hodges is General Manager of Victory Toyota in Canton, Michigan.   It’s bad news, especially in the wake of last year’s recall crisis. 

"When the weather breaks, March all the way through August is normally when we’re going to sell 2/3 of all of our vehicles," says Hodges, "And it’s going to hurt our sales, sure."

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Auto/Economy
6:44 pm
Mon April 11, 2011

Fiat to acquire another stake in Chrysler this week

Fiat could increase its ownership stake in Chrysler this week. 

Eventually, Fiat hopes to own a majority of the Detroit automaker. 

In 2009, the federal government agreed to give Fiat 20% of Chrysler in return for taking over management of the Detroit automaker.  The deal also set up incremental steps by which Fiat could reach 51%.    

Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne says he expects Fiat’s stake to grow to 30% this week, after meeting a requirement to increase sales of Chrysler vehicles outside North America.  

Auto/Economy
11:37 pm
Thu March 31, 2011

Auto worker for a day

Hundreds of auto workers will be assembling Chevy Sonics and Buick Veranos at GM's plant in Orion Township in just a few months. 

Every one of those workers will go through a simulated work environment training exercise before getting anywhere near a real car. The power tools and the bolts are real, but the cars and parts are made of wood. 

GM recently invited a group of auto journalists to take part in the exercise, to get a taste of what building a car is like.

The press is divided up into teams. Team 3's leader is Sabrina Wills, a member of UAW Local 602. She instructs us how to do the work, with each step meticulously standardized.

"Once the line starts moving, if the line moves at a normal pace, you’re gonna find yourself in the hole," she says.

Joanne Muller of Forbes asks, "So what do we do then?"

Wills:  "You’re gonna pull for help.  Pull your andon cord."

Team 3 will install the headlights, taillights, and bumpers. Wills says dropping a nut is par for the course when you’re new to the job. But the cardinal sin is dropping a part. In real life, that means it’s scrap. 

She drops a part on the cement floor to make a point. The sound reverberates through the big factory.

"You’re gonna hear the part hit the floor.  So don’t try to hide it under the line, because we don’t wanna put that broken headlight on a car."

As we wait for the line to start, Joanne Muller – who, by the way, has red hair – brings up that classic "I Love Lucy" episode. The one where Ethel and Lucy fall behind on the assembly line in a chocolate factory.

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Auto/Economy
10:08 pm
Tue March 29, 2011

Minivans fight "Loser Cruiser" stereotype with new sex appeal

The 2011 Nissan Quest

Pity the poor minivan. 

It hauls the family on vacations, never complaining.  

Carries the kids to school and soccer practice.  

Ever ready for a spontaneous trip to the hardware store, but does it get any respect? Nope. 

It gets called names. 

"Loser cruiser."

"Road slug."   

Well, if you make minivans, you can get mad.  Or like Toyota, you can embrace the situation with a tongue-in-cheek rap -- “The Swagger Wagon”  sung by an unhip, white, yuppie, suburban couple, with their two kids jammin' to the beat, next to a Sienna minivan.

"We rock the SE not the SUV, and it's true if I were you I'd be jealous of me, in the swagger wagon, yeah, the swagger wagon, I got the pride in my ride in the swagger wagon...."

Chrysler invented the minivan 27 years ago.  But after being wildly popular for years, the segment has lost customers, first to SUVS, then to crossovers. 

The people who design minivans are the first to admit they’re fighting an image problem.  And they’re doing something about it.  Chrysler has an optional all-black leather interior it nicknamed the “Man Van. “  All four of the biggest players – Honda, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan – got minivan makeovers this year.  There’s more sculpting, more chrome, more creased sheet metal.  Even jaunty little fins.  Sage Marie is with Honda.    

"If you think of what makes a sports car compelling, it’s that its low and wide, that's what makes it emotionally exciting.  So from a styling standpoint we tried to do that with the Odyssey."

In your FACE, sports car owners.  And cue another tongue-in-cheek song about minivans, this time a Beach Boys-style parody by the Austin Lounge Lizards.

"Hey, little minivan, we're going to the grocery store!/She's got an automatic tranny with overdrive and the radio's tuned to Magic 95/ She gets 30 miles on a gallon of gas and  I can schlep all the girls to gymnastics class/Hey little minivan, we're goin' to the children's museum!"

Well, upping the cool factor may help.  But people really buy minivans for comfort,  convenience, and practicality.  The sliding doors, all that space.  And the seats. 

Minivan designers take fierce pride in their seating configurations.   Honda’s Odyssey has a second row middle seat you can slide really close to the front seat.  That puts the baby within arm’s reach of a parent.  For Chrysler, the bragging point is “Stow and Go seats,”  which, in a matter of a few seconds, can be neatly folded and pushed into a compartment in the floor.

Fold all the seats down and there’s enough room for a refrigerator or two.   But one company thinks some customers could be willing to downsize a little, especially as gas hovers around $4.00 a gallon.  Ford Motor Company’s new small people-mover, the C-Max, will seat seven.  It will have sliding doors.  But Ford’s Paul Anderson says it will get car-like fuel economy.  Just don’t call it a minivan.

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State Law
3:23 pm
Tue March 29, 2011

State Senator Rick Jones: If teachers sacrifice, everyone should

Republican state senator Rick Jones says many schools may soon demand that teachers pay at least 20-percent of their health insurance premiums. 

Jones has introduced a bill that would keep a school’s per-pupil funding intact, if teachers agree to the cuts. 

But he says teachers shouldn't be the only one making the sacrifice.

"I learned that senators and representatives pay anywhere from 5% to 7.6%, and I thought, how is that fair that we’re paying that and teachers are being asked to pay 20%?"

Jones says his new bill would require state legislators to pay 20% of their health insurance premiums. 

He has also introduced a bill to alter the lifetime health insurance that legislators receive after serving only six years, calling it “obscene.”

The bill would phase in the benefit, beginning at ten years of service.

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