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. 

Staff / Chrysler Media

Chrysler union workers vote this week on a tentative new contract. 

Ford workers approved their contract on Wednesday, 63-percent in favor to 37-percent against. 

But the contract was narrowly rejected at the Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne.  Bob King is President of the union. 

"I don’t feel bad or in any way negative towards those workers because they voted against it," says King.  "I think they expressed honest, legitimate concerns.   I have the same concerns.   I don’t like a system where people on the same assembly line are making a different rate of pay."

Want to know the real reason Ford isn’t one of the biggest car companies in China right now? 

Hats. 

That's right. David McKee says it’s because of hats. Here’s the story. 

In 1992, Ford Motor Company sent McKee to China to head a Ford components company. At the time, very few ordinary Chinese owned cars. Cars were a perk for bureaucrats. 

Soaring rates of car ownership in China’s biggest cities are causing huge problems, from days-long traffic jams to choking smog. Even car companies say the trend is not sustainable. 

General Motors says one solution could be to reinvent the vehicle. Introducing the Miao, the Jiao, and the Shiao –  three cute, tiny cars with a serious mission.  

Car ownership in China has a dark side. Last year, a nine-day and a three-day construction-related traffic jam on the highway leading to Beijing were the most dramatic examples.

General Motors now sells more cars in China that it does in the United States. In a few years, it’s likely that will be the case for Ford Motor Company, too.   

But selling cars in China takes a different approach than it does in the U.S.

There's much that's familiar at Shanghai Dongchang Fude Auto Sales and Service. There’s the piped in music -- the salespeople hanging out near the front entrance, waiting to grab the next walk-in customer., and the lineup of shiny new cars on the floor. 

Contract talks between the United Auto Workers union and Chrysler resume Tuesday morning.  That’s after after negotiators were unable to reach a deal over the weekend. 

The UAW has asked its local presidents to come to Detroit on Wednesday.  That could mean an agreement is imminent. 

Top officials with the United Auto Workers are briefing local union leaders on contract talks with Chrysler today, after negotiators were unable to come to an agreement over the weekend.

A statement from Chrysler says talks ended this morning so the UAW could meet with its National Council.

Chrysler is the last of the Detroit Three to reach a tentative contract with the UAW.  General Motors workers last week ratified a new four-year contract by a margin of two-to-one.

Ford workers are voting this week on a new contract.

Both the contract at Ford and General Motors provide for a pay increase for the company's entry-level workers.

But Chrysler has many more of the entry-level workers than Ford and GM.  Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has called the pay increase at Ford and GM "overly generous."

I'm on assignment in China following Governor Snyder's trade mission, and I'm sharing my thoughts as I travel. Feel free to write me back in the comments below.

Nearing the end - Friday, September 30

The Governor's trade mission is coming to an end, and so is my trip to China.

I won't miss the smog and pollution, either in Shanghai (bad) or Beijing (worse).

But it has truly been too short a trip to get more than a glimpse of everything that is happening with China's economy, its auto industry, and its cultural and population shifts.

Frank Langfitt in Shanghai and Louisa Lim in Beijing surely have two of the biggest, most exciting beats in public radio.  This fly-in reporter leaves the country in their incredibly capable hands.

Adventure travel

My adventures with taxis continued.

I am starting to take this a little personally.

Arriving back in Shanghai from Beijing, I got in the long queue to get a taxi to my downtown Pudong hotel.

I decided I'd be a discerning and demanding customer this time around.  I rejected several taxis that had no seat belt in the back.  But when I found a taxi that was suitably equipped, and showed the driver the address to which I wanted to be taken, he shook his head, and drove up to grab the fellow who was behind me in the line.

The next taxi cab driver whose cab had seat belts did the same thing.  I asked  the airport employee who was in charge of the queue to help, but he spoke no English.  Nor did the first ten or so people in line.

Paying it forward

Finally, however, an angel arrived at the queue.  Deserine Lim, fluent English-speaker and rescuer of helpless American travelers.  She looked at my hotel address and explained that the taxi drivers didn't want me because it was too close, and they wanted a bigger fare.  Ouch.

Then, without my even thinking to ask, she suggested I split a cab with her.  She'd drop me off at my hotel, and continue on to her destination.

I'm not a Tennessee Williams fan for nothing.  I, too, have always relied on the kindness of strangers.  I got in the cab gratefully.

My rescuer is a native of Singapore, she told me, visiting Shanghai just for a day on business.  But she knows the town well, and told me what shops to go to near my hotel, what restaurants to haunt.  We discussed American politics.

When we arrived at my hotel, I paid the fare, and since it was clear her favor to me was going to cost her, both in terms of time and money, I tried to give her some money to cover the extra distance.

She adamantly refused to take it.

So, I shall have to content myself with paying it forward some day.

Ms. Lim is Assistant General Manager of OSIM, a global provider of personal, health and convenience products headquartered in Singapore.  OSIM is a co-owner of Brookstone, a company that provides such products in the U.S.

Thanks, Deserine.  You're a peach.

Next stops before home

Next stop for me:  Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where I'll visit the Joint Institute between SJTU and the University of Michigan.

I also plan to go to a shopping mall with my SJTU interpreter, Paul (Kang Yiping) to ask people about transportation issues.

Then, another interview with a Ford China official, to learn more about the company's strategy to ride the next wave of demand for vehicles in the country.

And tomorrow morning, I'll be on a non-stop flight from Shanghai to Detroit.

They say the jet lag is a lot worse coming back.

Michigan Radio, don't call me.  I'll call you.

Arrived in Beijing - Wednesday, September 28:

I am in Beijing.

I arrived on the fourth consecutive day of a smog health advisory in the city.  Children are not supposed to play outdoors, and people with chronic health conditions are being urged to stay inside. Even if you are healthy, the smog is very irritating to your eyes and throat.

Michigan has never seemed cleaner. Even the worst Ozone Action Day in Michigan in August can't hold a candle to this.

Shanghai was windy while I was there earlier in the week. We need a good strong breeze to get this stuff out of the city, so people can breathe.

The Chinese government knows it has a potential crisis on its hands, as more people move into the cities, and more of them purchase cars.  That's why the government adopted a five year plan to vastly increase the number of electric cars in China.

The big problem with that is infrastructure.

Governor Rick Snyder said he will return to China in the next year, after completing his first trade mission in that country.

In the meantime, he said there’s a lot of follow-up to do in Michigan, to develop brand-new relationships with Chinese business leaders.

Governor Snyder spent a day in Beijing, the Chinese capital, and a day in Shanghai, the country’s international commerce center.

He said he was pleasantly surprised at how interested Chinese business leaders seem in closer business ties with Michigan. He said one possibility is getting Chinese mining companies, who want to expand overseas, to take a look at mining copper and other deposits in the U.P.

"It’s another export from our state, and the main thing is we do it in an environmentally conscious way and we put in the structure to do that," said Snyder.

Governor Snyder also highlighted his new “Global Michigan Initiative,” which he says should help create jobs in the state.

The initiative is designed to encourage talented immigrants to settle in Michigan.

The Global Michigan Initiative began two months ago.

While speaking in Shanghai, Snyder said the initiative will expand over the next few years to include cultural programs, more trade missions, and a visa program.

"There are a number of states that are unfortunately discouraging immigration, and I believe it should be the opposite, and the empirical support is there by encouraging immigration you actually create jobs for people in your community," said Snyder. " It’s a job creator."

The Governor is now on his way to South Korea, after a two-day stay in China.

This is Snyder’s first trade mission, and he says it was easier to make a pitch for the state’s positive business environment than he expected.

That’s because some of the Chinese business leaders he met with had already done some homework on Michigan.

"The most pleasant surprise was just the positive response of people in China and businesses in particular, that many of them are seriously looking at Michigan already as a good place to do business, and I was happy to see that they mentioned tax reform is a good reason for them to come, having a balanced budget is a major item," said Snyder.

The Governor will be in Seoul next, where he will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Governor of  Gyeonggi Province. The agreement states that Michigan and the Province will work together to establish trade.

Snyder will return to Michigan on Saturday.

Governor Snyder's office

Governor Rick Snyder has left Japan, and is now in China. Beijing is the second stop on his four-city Asian trade mission.

Snyder said the Tokyo visit was a welcome chance to show some support for Japan.

"Because they're still recovering from March 11thin terms of the tsunami and earthquake, and they're a great people, and they really appreciate the outpouring of support from Michigan after that happened," said Snyder.

Michigan already has about 500 Japanese companies doing business in the state.

Snyder said there are even more opportunities to increase trade with Japan. That's in part because some Japanese companies are considering an increase in overseas production after the tsunami.

Snyder goes to Shanghai next, then Seoul, before returning to Michigan on Saturday.

Governor Rick Snyder begins his first trade mission this weekend.  

The governor’s whirlwind schedule includes two days in Tokyo, one day in Beijing, one day in Shanghai, and one day in Seoul – not including two days of travel. 

The ultimate goal is creating more jobs in the state.  But the Governor has been careful to downplay expectations of new jobs right away. 

General Motors

Contract talks between the United Auto Workers and Chrysler and Ford continue this week, after GM became the first to settle on the terms of a tentative agreement with the union, late Friday.

Officials with the union and the automaker will release details of the contract on Tuesday at an 11:00 a.m. press conference.

The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press report that the GM contract probably includes a signing bonus for workers if they agree to the deal, and a pay increase for entry-level workers.

Plus, GM is expected to agree to add more jobs in the U.S.

The deadline for Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers’ union is fast approaching. 

But contract talks could be extended past the deadline of this Wednesday – especially at Ford. 

Ford is the only company that faces the possibility of a strike this time, because of agreements made during GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcies.

UAW President Bob King says a strike is not the goal.

But some union dissidents think a strike could happen.

Gary Walkowicz  is a bargaining committeeman at UAW Local 600 in Dearborn.

Governor Snyder will travel on his first trade mission later this month.  The Governor will travel to Japan, China, and Korea, to encourage Asian companies to invest and expand in Michigan. 

Snyder says the China part of his trip in particular is long overdue. 

Snyder will be the first Michigan governor to go to China since the Engler administration.

He says Chinese companies may not be aware that a lot has changed for the good in the state since then, like the elimination of the Michigan Business Tax, and a new approach to regulation.

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.

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