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. 

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.

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.

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.

A bill pending in the state legislature could speed up adoptions in Michigan. 

State law requires all adoptions be approved by only one person – the superintendent of the Michigan Children’s Institute.

That leads to delays of up to two months in getting an adoption finalized.

Maura Corrigan is Director of the Michigan Department of Human Services.

She says the superintendent should be able to choose people to act in his stead.

"We’ll be able to have the adoptions approved locally by one of his designees, instead of every local case going to Lansing and be looked at there," says Corrigan.

There are more than 4,000 children eligible for adoption in Michigan.

The University of Michigan’s selection of Governor Rick Snyder as its Spring commencement speaker has sparked a protest.

U-of-M Senior Rick Durance, a history major and progressive activist, started an online petition asking University Regents to withdraw the invitation.  As of 6:15 p.m. Tuesday evening, 3,759  students have signed it.

Durance says Snyder is a poor choice because he wants to make deep cuts to state funding for K-12 schools and universities. 

Durance says it appears the Governor is only interested in helping business people. 

"This in fact is not the proper person to be speaking for us or representing us at this particular junction of our lives," says Durance.

University of Michigan spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham says it's a time-honored tradition since 1967 for the newly elected governor to present the commencement address.

She says the school is very pleased that Governor Snyder, a three-time alum of the University, was able to accept the invitation.  

Durance says there will be a 1:00 rally on Wednesday on campus against Snyder as commencement speaker. 

But he doesn't favor a commencement boycott, should the petition fail in its goal.    He says students who oppose Snyder should join protests in Lansing.  But at commencement, students should act with decorum.  

"I've already invited people, my parents are going to be there.  I want to be there.  I would not miss my own graduation for the world."

Most people think their dealerships are being honest about recommended repair and maintenance work.  That’s  according to an annual survey by J.D. Power.  

J.D. Power says only 7% of people say their dealer tried to sell them maintenance or repairs they didn’t need.  The practice is called “upselling.”

Research director John Obsborn says customers’ satisfaction with dealerships has been steadily improving for a decade:

" Unfortunately there are many stereotypes out there about the dealers -- but our data indicates that they provide high levels of satisfaction both in the servicing of vehicles and the selling of vehicles."

Osborn says vehicle quality has also been improving for the past ten years – and that tends to increase people’s satisfaction with their dealerships, who don’t have to give customers bad news in the form of high repair bills as often.   

The survey found little difference among perceptions of upselling between brands, luxury and non-luxury vehicles, or between men and women. 

Younger customers were, however, more likely to think their dealership was trying to sell them an unnecessary repair or maintenance.

Many car plants in Japan remain closed as a result of the massive earthquake and tsunami. 

Japanese carmakers say it’s too early to know if the disaster will hurt their exports to the U.S. 

Toyota, Nissan, Subaru and Honda suspended most of their operations in Japan after the disaster, and many plants remain closed today.

Nissan says small fires broke out at two plants but the fires were quickly extinguished. 

One Honda employee in Japan was killed when a cafeteria wall collapsed at Honda’s Research & Development Center in Tochigi. 

More than thirty Honda employees were also injured in Honda facilities in Tochigi due to ceilings collapsing and other damage that took place during the earthquake.

Exports to the U.S. are threatened not just by damage to plants but damage to Japanese ports. 

There could also be parts disruptions from damage to Japanese suppliers.

Michigan’s research universities could have a lot at stake in the outcome of a Stanford University lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling could affect who gets the rights to nearly two billion dollars’ worth of patents that are developed as part of university-private partnerships.

Stanford sued after drug company Roche claimed the rights to a lucrative medical test.

A Stanford researcher developed the test using research techniques he learned at a private company later acquired by Roche.

Spacing Magazine / Flickr

Updated:  5:59 p.m.

Outgoing GM CFO Chris Liddell says he only began wrestling with whether to leave GM in the past few weeks, and he and boss Dan Ackerson have been discussing the subject only for the past week.

Liddell says he has no announcement to make as to his next job, but he thinks it will not be a chief financial officer position.

GM CEO Dan Akerson says the transition, from Liddell to his successor, current GM Treasurer Dan Ammanns, should be "seamless."

Akerson says he's committed to remain at the helm of GM for the next five years.  Dan Ammanns also stresses his plan to stay for the long term.

Investors in GM's initial public offering in November had been assured that GM's leadership would stabilize. 

Sheldon Stone is with Amherst Partners, a restructuring consultant firm.

Stone says some investors will likely be concerned about Liddell's departure.

"He (Liddell) was part of that road show, that went out pitching the IPO," says Stone.  "He had his fingerprints all over it. 

Stone says GM needs change.  But this may be too much change.

GM has had four CEOs in the past year.  Several senior executives have left GM in the past year.  And the deck of senior management has been shuffled and re-shuffled several times.

Ken Elias is an analyst with the consultant firm Maryann Keller & Associates. 

He says Liddell, formerly CFO of Microsoft, was brought to GM by former CEO Ed Whitaker, with the understanding that Liddell would be groomed as Whitaker's successor.

But months after Liddell began his new job at GM, Whitaker stepped down as CEO.  GM's Board chose Board member Dan Akerson to lead the company. 

Elias says that could account for Liddell's decision, after the IPO was completed, to leave GM.

 

---------------------------------

General Motors says its Chief Financial Officer will step down as of April 1st. Chris Liddell will be replaced by Treasurer Dan Ammann. The Associated Press reports:

Spokeswoman Noreen Pratscher said Thursday that Liddell accomplished his goals of finishing an initial public stock offering and returning the company to sound financial footing. She says Liddell did not say anything about his plans for the future.

Under Liddell, GM posted four straight profitable quarters.

Spokeswoman Noreen Pratscher said Liddell accomplished his goals of finishing an initial public stock offering and returning the company to sound financial footing. She says Liddell did not say anything about his plans for the future.

The 52-year-old Liddell joined GM in January of 2010, about six months after it emerged from bankruptcy protection.

Chairman and Chief Executive Dan Akerson said Liddell was a major contributor to GM during a pivotal time in the company's history.

"He guided the company's IPO process and established a good financial foundation for the future," Akerson said in a statement.

GM reported net income of $4.7 billion last year, fueled by strong sales in China and the U.S. as the global auto market began to recover. It earned $2.89 per share on revenue of $135.6 billion.

It was the company's best performance since earning $6 billion in 1999 during the height of the pickup truck and sport utility vehicle sales boom.

Chrysler is recalling a quarter million crossovers and minivans for ignition switch problems that can cause stalling. 

The recall involves 2010 model year Dodge Journey crossovers and Grand Caravan minivans and Chrysler Town and Country minivans. 

The company says in some of the vehicles, ignition switches can slip out of the “run” position while the vehicle is being driven. That could shut off the engine. 

At least two rear-end collisions have been reported due to the defect.   

The Grand Caravan and Town and Country minivans are top-sellers for the company. 

The automaker is struggling to increase sales while many of its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brand vehicles remain at the bottom of many quality and reliability surveys.

Spacing Magazine / Flickr

Snowstorms in February didn’t seem to dampen car sales.  Sales were up 32-percent at Nissan, 42-percent at Toyota, and 46-percent at GM.

GM’s gain is for several reasons. Last February GM’s sales were weak, so this February looks much better in comparison. The company increased incentives in February. And it’s easier for GM customers to get financing now that GM has its own finance arm, GM Financial.

Don Johnson is head of GM’s U.S. sales.

"With their entry into the market, our penetration of the sub-prime business is above the industry average," says Johnson.  "We’ve also got GM Financial growing their prime lease business."

February sales were up 13-percent at Chrysler and 14-percent at Ford.

Sean_Marshall / Flickr

Flint’s state representatives could introduce a bill that would permit the city to ask Flint residents to approve an increase in the city income tax.   

The city faces a deficit of more than $17-million. Representative Woodrow Stanley says there aren’t many other options.  Flint can’t turn to a cash-strapped state for help.

"As a matter of fact, about 8.1 million dollars is being proposed to be cut from Flint’s revenue sharing," says Stanley.

But Stanley says getting such a bill passed will be an uphill battle, because of  strong anti-tax sentiment among Republicans in the state House.

A new study says overuse of antibiotics is still a big problem, fifteen years after the Centers for Disease Control began a campaign to stop the practice.  

Marianne Udow-Phillips is head of the University of Michigan’s Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation.  She says antibiotics do not work for viral infections.  And the more physicians over-prescribe antibiotics, the more pathogens will develop resistance to the drugs.  But she says patients and doctors alike haven’t gotten the message. Udow-Phillips says:

"We’re just sick for a long time and we just want that magic pill to fix us... But if we have a virus, an antibiotic is not gonna help.  And sometimes physicians cave in to the pressure from families who say, 'just do something'."

Udow-Phillips says drug-resistant staph has become a huge problem.  In fact, more Americans die every year from antibiotic-resistant staph infections than AIDS. 

The practice of overprescribing the drugs is a bigger problem in some parts of Michigan than others, the study found.  In Holland, only about 10% of children who saw a doctor for an upper respiratory viral infection were given a prescription for antibiotics.

But in West Branch, nearly 68% of children with upper respiratory infections were given a prescription for an antibiotic.

Udow-Phillips thinks the differences in prescription rates is most likely because the CDC campaign focused on pediatricians rather than family physicians or internal medicine specialists.  She says more children may be seeing family physicians in areas like West Branch.

Udow-Phillips says the worst part of it is, physicians are often over-prescribing so-called "broad spectrum" antibiotics, when "narrow spectrum" antibiotics would, at least, do less harm.

It's not unusual for a big snowstorm to hurt business at new car dealerships.

But it appears that February car sales in the U.S. improved over the same month a year ago, even though much of the country experienced more than one big snowstorm.                           

Car sales could be up 19% as a fair number of people trudged through snow-covered lots to buy a car.  That could be a sign that the pent-up demand that built up over the recession is now being released at a steady pace. 

The University of Michigan will probably not ask state legislators to soften what it calls “painful” proposed cuts to higher education.  Rather, U of M President Mary Sue Coleman is expected to tout the institution's successful efforts to drive costs out of the school's budget.

Scott Denny / Flickr

The state's three main airports report business has returned almost to normal, after crews spent the evening clearing runways of snow and ice.  Up to ten inches fell overnight.  In many cases, that was more snow than fell during the so-dubbed "Snowpocalypse," a few weeks ago. 

Detroit Metro Airport spokesman Mike Conway says the big problem last night was the roadways leading to the airport.  He says it took a long time for taxis to return from outlying suburbs, and there was congestion as cars and taxis lined up outside terminals.

Ford's global small car, the Ford Fiesta, has received the equivalent of a five-star safety rating in virtually all the regions of the world in which it is sold - China, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and the United States.   The subcompact car also received a "Top Safety Pick" award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which nonetheless warns drivers that in general, larger vehicles are safer vehicles.   

Michigan Radio

Update 3:45pm

Governor Rick Snyder’s budget proposal calls for eliminating millions of dollars in business and personal tax breaks; big cuts to schools, universities, and local governments.  The governor says it is bitter medicine necessary to cure the state’s budget troubles, and set the foundation for an economic recovery. 

Governor Snyder says everyone will have to sacrifice to fix massive fiscal problems that have built up over decades under Republican and Democratic administrations. That includes growing pension and healthcare liabilities that the state will start to pay down.

 “We are going to take responsibility for a legacy of debt that has built up over decades.”  

 To pay for that, balance the budget, and cut taxes for businesses, Snyder wants to shut down state police posts and at least one prison; start taxing pensions; cut money for schools, universities, and local governments; and ask public employees to pay more for their benefits. 

Critics already say the budget will force more school districts and local governments into insolvency and families into poverty. The governor, who is a millionaire, says he will share in the sacrifice by working for a dollar a year.    

Budget Director John Nixon says the administration’s proposal will end the state’s string of budget crises and will send a message that Michigan is managing its finances.

“A lot of people are going to be upset with this budget. We understand that. But it’s the right budget. It’s a responsible budget that takes into account the needs of our citizens and taxpayers’ ability to pay.”

About two dozen state employees protested in Lansing today as Governor Rick Snyder presented his budget plan to state lawmakers. They complained about plans to roll back public employee benefits and tax pensions.         Tammy Warner works in the state Department of Human Services.

“The state is cutting all kinds of services not just to the poor – they’re actually decimating the middle class. They’re also decimating the state workers and they are making it impossible for us to live in this state.”

Public employees say they’ve already made concessions and accepted unpaid furlough days to help the state through earlier budget crises.   Advocates for low-income families say ending state the earned income tax credit for the working poor will result in more children living in poverty. School and city officials say cuts will force more local governments into insolvency.

Update 1:22

Democratic leaders in the Michigan legislature are reacting to Governor Snyder's budget proposal.

Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer called the Governor's budget "the same old politics of putting corporate tax breaks ahead of the people. From Whitmer's statement:

"Governor Snyder's idea of shared sacrifice seems to mean that working families will do most of the sacrificing while companies continue to reap the rewards," said Whitmer. "He is balancing this budget on the backs of our kids, working families, and our seniors. Contrary to his rhetoric about 'moving all of Michigan forward,' this budget picks out who he's willing to leave behind."

Update 12:43 p.m.

Governor Snyder has placed his budget recommendations to the Michigan legislature online.

Update 12:11 p.m.

"The day of kicking the can down the road is ending," declared Governor Snyder in calling for tax and budget changes that he says should have happened twenty or thirty years ago.   

Snyder says he used the principle of fairness in arriving at some changes, for example, an end to the Michigan Business Tax, the tax on unincorporated companies in the state.   Snyder says the tax is unfair because it's a form of double taxation, since the business owner already pays personal income tax. 

And he says individual pension income should be taxed.  Snyder says it's not fair to tax the income of senior citizens who are still working, and not tax retired senior citizens living on pension income.

Snyder wants to eliminate many individual tax credits, such as the deduction for donations to public universities.  But he would keep the deduction for personal property tax, although he says the property tax system will need to be overhauled at a later time.

Snyder says his budget keep the safety net for Michigan's poorest citizens intact.

Update 11:23 a.m.

Governor Snyder says he will share in the sacrifices he's calling for in the state budget by working for one dollar a year. The governor is presenting a budget that includes big cuts to schools, local governments, and public universities -- as well as eliminating many personal and business tax breaks. The governor's budget proposal also calls for an overall one-point-eight (b) billion dollar cut on businesses. - Rick Pluta

Update 10:48 a.m.

Michigan Government Television will carry Governor Snyder's presentation of his budget proposal live at 11 a.m.

The Michigan Senate will also live stream the presentation from their website.

7:11 a.m.

These details of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's $45 billion budget proposal were outlined to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

- Drops the individual income tax rate from 4.35 percent to 4.25 percent on Oct. 1; the tax will then remain at 4.25 percent rather than being decreased to 3.9 percent in future years as scheduled.

- Eliminates the state income tax exemption for pensions, but Social Security benefits will continue to be exempt.

- Eliminates the Michigan Business Tax and replaces it with a flat 6 percent corporate income tax on major corporations.

- Eliminates business credits awarded for films, brownfield redevelopment, the Michigan Economic Growth Authority, etc., although current commitments will be honored. Sets aside $25 million for film credits from the 21st Century Jobs Fund.

- Rolls funding for universities and community colleges from the general fund to the school aid fund, the main funding source for K-12 schools.

- Cuts per pupil funds $300, in addition to the currently budged $170 per pupil reduction.

- Eliminates statutory revenue sharing payments for cities, villages and townships in FY 2012, leading to a net savings of $92.1 million. The change impacts 509 local units of government. Increases constitutional revenue sharing by 4 percent, to $659 million.

- Includes $200 million for a new incentive-based revenue sharing program for cities, villages and townships that meet specific standards to be detailed in March.

- Sets a lifetime limit of 48 months for residents to receive welfare payments, with exemptions for incapacity and hardship.

- Closes the Shawono Center in Grayling, and cuts 20 beds in capacity at the Maxey Training School in Whitmore Lake, resulting in $787,000 general fund savings.

- Eliminates 300 field worker positions in the Department of Human Services.

- Closes one prison to be named later this year.

- Reduces the number of Michigan State Police posts, saving $3.2 million.

- Reduces state aid to libraries in the Department of Education budget by $2.3 million in the general fund, with $950,000 directed to the Michigan eLibrary, resulting in net savings of $1.4 million.

- Suggests privatizing food service and prison stores operations in Michigan prisons, and suggests that resident care aide services at the Grand Rapids Veterans' Home be competitively bid.

-Turns the dairy farm inspection program over to industry field representatives certified by the Department of Agriculture.

General Motors factory workers will get a record amount in profit-sharing checks this year.  The automaker's 48,000 UAW hourly workers will get at least $4,000.  That's more than twice the company's previous record for hourly worker profit-sharing  - $1,775 in 1999.

NHTSA

"The jury is back, the verdict is in."

That’s how Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that faulty electronics played no role in cases of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars.  It’s unequivocal good news for a company attempting to rebuild its reputation.

Last year, Toyota recalled millions of its cars for gas pedal defects that could cause unintended acceleration.

Those recalls shook the company’s reputation for safety like an earthquake.

Dean Stewart is Service Manager for Victory Toyota in Canton, Michigan. The dealership's huge - and nearly empty - service garage, has only one car on a lift that was brought in under a recall.  But last year at this time, the place was bustling:

"I mean we were open 7 days a week, we had two shifts, we were working 90 hours a week just to make sure we could take care of our customers," says Stewart.

Photo courtesy of www.stabenow.senate.gov

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow has introduced legislation to help people who buy plug-in electric cars – and to help the companies making the advanced vehicles.

Right now, someone who buys a plug-in electric car like a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt gets a tax credit of up to $7,500.  But the buyer doesn’t collect the money until tax time.

Stabenow says the program could be improved.

I think it would be an even bigger incentive if it were on the front end for consumers.

Stabenow says Congress already approved the money for the tax credit, so it wouldn’t cost any more to give it out as a rebate at the time of sale.

Currently, cars that qualify for the full rebate include the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and the Tesla Roadster. Coda and Wheego also make an electric vehicle that qualifies for the credit. Ford, Fiat and Toyota plan to launch electric plug-in cars within the next year.

Stabenow’s legislation would also commit the federal government to spend two billion dollars to help companies that make advanced lithium ion batteries for vehicles. That’s on top of the two billion dollars the federal government has already spent to help the new industry. 

The Congresswoman admits the legislation is being proposed during a tough budget year:

 (But) I think that strategic investments in innovation like battery innovation and manufacturing equals jobs – and so I’m hopeful that this will be a priority.

Michigan received the lion’s share of the last round of federal grants for advanced battery development– more than one billion dollars.  Michigan now has more advanced battery companies than any other state.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will reveal the results Tuesday afternoon of a year-long NASA investigation into claims of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Toyota recalled millions of vehicles last year – many because of the potential for loose floor mats to entrap the gas pedal.  In other cases, the gas pedal wouldn’t fully release.

But hundreds of lawsuits allege that Toyota vehicles can also speed out of control because something is wrong with the electronic throttle control system, perhaps due to electromagnetic interference – a problem NASA knows a lot about.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a preliminary report last year suggesting that in some cases, the sudden acceleration was the fault of drivers, because they hit the gas pedal instead of the brake.

Toyota says it has failed to find any problems with its electronic throttle control systems.  The company did pay record fines last year for delaying recalls.

Toolshed4 / Flickr

Ford Motor Company is recalling nearly 365,000 F-150 pickup trucks in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The problem is faulty door handles that could lead to the doors flying open in a crash.

The F-150 is the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. Most of the recalled trucks were made in the 2009 and 2010 model years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says a spring in the interior door handle can break, which means the door may not latch properly. So the door could potentially fling open if the truck is hit on the side.

Ford says there have been no crashes or injuries tied to the problem. Ford is also dealing with a large and expensive recall of nearly 600-000 older model Windstar minivans. That one is for corrosion in the axles that could cause the axles to break.

Update 3:25 p.m.:

Evening classes for Wednesday, February 2 are canceled.  NMU Public Safety and Police Services continue to have things under control on campus, but for precautionary reasons, ask that people do not wander on campus or come to the University at this time.

Students in residence halls are asked to remain there.

More information will be provided as it's made available.  The University remains closed for the day.

Update 1:29 p.m.:

NMU Public Safety is changing the status of residence halls to lockdown with NMU ID access so that residence hall students can gain access to dining facilities. Students must take their NMU IDs to return to their halls. Residents of Quad I and II can proceed to the Marketplace. Residents of West and Spooner Halls are encouraged to use the Wildcat Den. An NMU Public Safety escort will be provided.

If you are a parent of an NMU student and have questions, you may call 906-227-1226

Update 11:34 a.m.:

Northern Michigan University has issued the following statement:

NMU Public Safety and Police Services has things under control on campus, but for precautionary reasons, ask that people do not wander on campus or come to the university at this time. Students in residence halls are asked to remain there. More information will be provided as it's made available.  The university remains closed for the day.

Update 10:51 a.m.:

Northern Michigan University was closed down around 9 a.m. this morning because of a "serious threat."

Spokeswoman Kristi Evans says an online threat was made to harm students, faculty and others at the campus. Employees already at work were evacuated from buildings, and students were turned away by Public Safety officers. 

Detective Captain Gordon Warchock is with the Marquette Police Department. He says there is an ongoing investigation:

We're assisting Northern Michigan University public safety in any way we can with the investigation and providing manpower.

An unconfirmed source says a blogger threatened to "shoot up" campus this morning. Nicole Walton is News Director at public radio station WNMU.  She says even essential personnel were told to go home, so the radio station is on autopilot:

When we think of closures usually it's because of several feet of snow falling, and shooters coming on campus, it's just not on our radar.

Students at Marquette Area Public Schools have also been sent home, and Marquette General Hospital has posted security at entrances.

Update 10:44 a.m.:

The Associated Press reports:

Spokeswoman Kristi Evans says Wednesday an online threat was made to harm students, faculty, staff and administrators at Northern Michigan. Evans had no further details about the nature of the threat, which was discovered shortly before 8 a.m.

Evans says an emergency notice was transmitted on laptop computers that are provided to all 9,400 students. Text messages were sent on cell phones.

She says it's uncertain whether the closure will extend beyond Wednesday.

Evans says the message did not mention the public schools. But interim superintendent Deborah Veiht said they also were closed as a precaution. Marquette Senior High School is next door to the university campus. The public schools have 3,000 students.

Update 10:33 a.m.:

The Mining Journal reports from Marquette:

Northern Michigan University was closed today because of an anonymous threat received early this morning.

Effects of the threat rippled outward from the NMU campus, resulting in the closure of all Marquette Area Public Schools.

According to Cindy Paavola, NMU director of communications and marketing, the unspecified threat would have caused harm to students but it was unknown what part of campus it would impact. More information will be released as it becomes available throughout the day, Paavola said.

Troopers from the Michigan State Police Negaunee Post said NMU Public Safety told them they were responding in a cautious way by closing down the university.

Update 10:18 a.m.:

Northern Michigan University was closed down around 9 a.m. because of a "serious threat" received by officials. Employees already at work were evacuated from buildings and students were turned away by Public Safety officers, who were parked in the middle of campus. Marquette Area Public Schools were locked down, but students have since been released to their parents. Although open, the local hospital has limited the number of entrances to five and has posted guards at each door.

It has not been confirmed, but a source says a blogger threatened to "shoot up" campus Wednesday morning. A California resident read the blog and contacted NMU officials. No reason for the threat has been given

Update 10:11 a.m.:

City police say area schools are also taking precautionary measures.

The university is shut down for the day because of a threat that university officials are taking seriously, according to a Public Safety spokesperson who could not provide additional information.

Students, staff and employees, including essential personnel, were notified this morning that the university is closed, and security personnel were turning away employees who did show up to work.

Update 10:07 a.m.:

Northern Michigan University has been evacuated and Marquette General Hospital is also reportedly under lockdown with limited entrances open because of the threat to NMU. We’ll have more information as it becomes available.

9:59 a.m.:

Northern Michigan University is closed today... not because of the weather but due to a serious threat it has received. The closure includes essential personnel. We have anecdotal reports that security personnel are turning employees away and telling them to go back home. We’ll have more information as it becomes available.

USGov / creative commons

Michigan Radio spoke with Democratic U.S. Senator Carl Levin about a wide range of topics on Wednesday - starting with the situation in Egypt.

Levin says Egyptians deserve a democratic government and the U.S. should support their aspirations. Levin is the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee . But he says the violent turn of events in Egypt is a bad sign. Levin thinks it best if current President Hosni Mubarak oversees the transition to a new government.

"The more violent and the more sudden his departure is, seems to me, the more likely it is that what will take his place would not be sustainable," says Levin. "If the army has to move in to restore order, that’s not necessarily the best way to move to a democracy."

Thousands of anti-government  protestors clashed with supporters of President Mubarak today.

Levin also addressed this afternoon's vote in the Senate to repeal the nation's new health reform law.

It's expected the bill will not pass, since the vote will likely be along party lines, and Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate.

Levin says repeal is out of the question. He says the reform will help millions of Americans get health insurance and avoid bankruptcy because of medical bills. And repeal, he says, would cost $500 billion.

But Levin says Democrats in the Senate are willing to consider bills to improve the law.

"We are open to those kind of changes, but it’s gotta be looked at very carefully one by one as to what is being proposed and what the cost of it is," he says.

A bill has also been proposed to allow states to opt out of the new law. A vote on that bill hasn’t been scheduled.

There are also court challenges to the law, in particular, the provision that requires everyone to buy health insurance. 

David Erickson / Flickr

Most car companies had a better January than the same month last year, led by Chrysler and GM, which improved their sales 23%.

Ford sales improved 13%.  The company had a stronger January a year ago than Chrysler and GM, which were both struggling to rebuild inventories, so Ford's percentage improvement is not as great.

Ford also terminated its Mercury brand in December, and officials say the company is deliberately reducing sales to fleets like rental car companies.  A high volume of fleet sales can lower the residual value of a company's vehicles.

General Motors is jumping back into advertising during the Superbowl.  GM will likely spend $15,000,000  on ads focusing on its Chevrolet brand.

Many car companies like Ford Motor Company are using social media and Internet-based advertising more and more.  But analyst Ed Kim of AutoPacific says Superbowl ads still generate a lot more buzz.

"Any automaker advertising during the Superbowl is certainly going to have a whole lot of exposure to a whole lot of people all across America," says Kim.

Kim says GM's current marketing czar, Joel Ewanick, used to work for Hyundai, so he has experience using the Superbowl to improve a car company's image and sales.   At the peak of the recession, Hyundai began a highly successful campaign which allowed people to return Hyundai cars if they lost their jobs.  Kim says Hyundai used the campaign to good effect in its Superbowl ads.

GM did not advertise during the Superbowl last year and the year before.  The automaker does plan a social media campaign in conjunction with the Superbowl.  GM will release its Superbowl ads early to its Facebook fans.

Kim says that will generate some extra buzz for GM.

The ads will focus on the Chevrolet brand.   Chevy generates about 70% of GM's sales in the U.S.

Chrysler lost $650 million in 2010, primarily as a result of high interest payments on its government loans.

It's a far different result from the other automaker that received federal bailout loans, General Motors, which posted a healthy profit in 2010.  And GM paid back a significant portion of its loans from cash reserves and proceeds from its Initial Public Stock Offering.

But Chrysler is a much smaller company than GM, and its sales were still weak last year.  That means less revenue to lower the debt burden.   

Chrysler's CEO Sergio Marchionne says, "We’ve got more than a billion in interest costs a year, which are effectively chewing up the operating profits that we’ve got."

Marchionne  says he hopes to secure private loans to pay off the federal loans by the end of this year.

On the plus side, Chrysler has entered the new year with 16 new or significantly remodeled vehicles, just as U.S. auto sales are improving.

Despite not being able to turn a profit, Marchionne says the company met or exceeded all of its targets last year.  He says everyone pitched in to help Chrysler refresh its vehicle lineup in record time, and implement a new cost-saving manufacturing system. 

"I think it would been absolutely inexcusable on our part not to recognize what our people have done," he said during an earnings conference call with analysts and media.

The publication Automotive News reports Chrysler UAW workers will get payments of $750 each.

GM workers are expected to get actual profit-sharing checks.  GM releases its fourth quarter and full 2010 year results later in February.

Ford workers will get an average $5,000 each after the company posted its best profit in 11 years.

Analysts say U.S. car sales were at least 15% better in January than the same month last year.  Part of the reason is the deals.

Credit is more available than it was last year, and many car makers are offering low to 0% financing on last year’s models, as they try to clear room for the new models on the way. 

George Augustaitis is an analyst with IHS Automotive.  He says those new cars could keep the momentum going as the year progresses.

Ford is introducing the new Focus, Hyundai will launch the new Elantra , and Honda has a new Civic on the way.

"This is really going to drive buyers back," says Augustaitis.  "And a lot of these vehicles already have a large following."

Tooshed4 / Flickr

Ford Motor Company announced this morning that it had its best annual performance in more than a decade. Ford earned $6.6 billion last year as sales jumped by 20 percent. Revenues rose 3 percent to almost $121 billion.

UPDATED:  11:40 a.m.  Ford CEO Alan Mulally says salaried and hourly workers will share in the good news in the form of profit-sharing checks.  Hourly workers will get average payments of $5,000.

"To be able to share the wonderful work, the wonderful success of this, with everybody's that's worked on quality, on fuel efficiency, on safety -- it's a tremendous day for all of us," says Mulally.

Ford made $7.2 billion dollars in 1999, but it sold nearly twice the number of vehicles to get that result compared to 2010.  Mulally says the company is benefiting from what he calls a "home improvement loan" of $23-billion, taken out in 2006, that financed the company's effort to slash operating costs and improve quality.

"You think about back then (1999) and now, this is a complete transformation of Ford," he says.

Mulally says the biggest challenge this year is not specifically a Ford problem.  He says the U.S. needs to exercise sound fiscal policy so the economy continues to recover.

Ford Motor Company is forecasting higher profits in 2011 than 2010. 

The company's stock dropped Friday morning, however, as investors reacted to Ford's fourth quarter results.  The company's profits were lower than expected because of costs associated with restructuring some debt.

Mulally says the company has made swift progress in paying off that "home improvement loan."  Debt was reduced 43% in 2010.

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