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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NMU Closure
3:25 pm
Wed February 2, 2011

Northern Michigan University closed due to threat

Northern Michigan University Seal

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.

Politics
1:28 pm
Wed February 2, 2011

Carl Levin on Egypt, repealing health care reform, and electric cars

Senator Carl Levin talking to the press
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. 

Read more
Auto/Economy
5:12 pm
Tue February 1, 2011

January car sales strong...but storm threatens February sales.

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.

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Auto/Economy
6:14 pm
Mon January 31, 2011

General Motors gets back into Superbowl advertising

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.

Auto/Economy
6:04 pm
Mon January 31, 2011

Chrysler loses money in 2010 but gives performance bonuses anyway

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.

Read more
Auto/Economy
10:36 pm
Sun January 30, 2011

Deals help auto sales in January

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."

Read more
Auto Earnings
7:23 am
Fri January 28, 2011

Ford announces highest profit in more than a decade

Ford announced this morning that it had made its highest profit in more than a decade
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.


Auto/Economy
4:28 pm
Thu January 27, 2011

Levin calls for more hybrid car tax credits

Congressman Sander Levin
http://www.house.gov/levin/

A Michigan Congressman says U.S. automakers need more help to sell large numbers of electric and hybrid vehicles.

The Obama administration has set a goal of one million plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road by 2015.

There’s already a federal tax credit of $7,500 to help defray the cost of buying a hybrid or electric car.   But there’s a cap on how many of the credits are available to each automaker. 

Read more
Auto/Economy
2:24 pm
Thu January 27, 2011

General Motors' financial health improves

General Motors is saying thanks but no thanks to more federal loans.  The Detroit automaker is withdrawing its application for more than 14-billion dollars in low-cost loans from the Department of Energy.   

Many car companies including Ford have received DOE loans, which are intended to help auto companies revamp factories to build more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.  GM applied for loans through the program shortly after emerging from bankruptcy.  But the automaker says its financial situation has improved since then. 

Gerry Meyers is a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. He's also a former Chairman of American Motors Corporation.  He says taking the loans would have given GM more debt.   And the automaker told prospective IPO investors late last year that it would avoid going deeply into debt.

It’s quite clear that they’re trying to clean up that balance sheet and also get the government out of the business, so it’s just another step in that direction and I think it’s wise.

Meyers says the next step to GM’s recovery is to stop the revolving door at the top executive level.  The company has had four CEOs in two years.   

Read more
Auto/Economy
4:41 pm
Wed January 26, 2011

Distractions rise - but distracted driving deaths don't

Kordite


U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood met with Ford CEO Alan Mulally on Tuesday to discuss the "epidemic" of distracted driving, as LaHood calls it.


LaHood’s self-described rampage against distracted driving has mostly focused on cell phone use in cars.  But the Secretary has also angered many people in the car business for criticizing profit-driving car technologies like Onstar and Sync. 


Many studies show that using a cell phone in the car is distracting.  And so are a lot of other things, especially if they pile up.  Let’s say you’re driving and there’s a kid in the back seat crying.  That’s distracting.  If you remember the Ed Sullivan show, you can think of that as one plate spinning on top of a pole.

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Arts/Culture
4:31 pm
Thu January 20, 2011

DSO and musicians meet as strike enters 16th week

The Detroit Symphony musicians and the DSO management have agreed to meet
Zuu Mumu Entertainment Flickr

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra agreed to meet with striking musicians on Thursday. Musicians walked out on October 4th. The last time the two sides met to resolve the contract dispute was late November.

Meanwhile, patrons are hoping for a resolution soon. Jean Cranston has attended DSO concerts for the past 15 years.  She says missing out on the concerts is like “losing a friend.”

Cranston lives in the suburbs now – but she was born in Detroit.

"It made me have some connection with the city -- which I feel I don’t have too much of any more," says Cranston.  "And it also gives you hope when you go down there that things can revive in the city."

The DSO lost nearly $9 million last year. Management recently increased its wage offer to musicians. But the DSO also wants work rule changes that musicians oppose.

Auto/Economy
5:18 pm
Wed January 19, 2011

Chrysler to build experimental hybrid minivans

There’s more than one kind of hybrid vehicle. But most people only know about electric hybrids that use batteries.

The U.S. Department of Energy has poured several billion dollars into helping companies develop advanced lithium-ion batteries.  But to hear Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne describe the effort, that's tantamount to picking a technology winner, before the race is finished.

The big problem with advanced batteries, says Marchionne, is they're really expensive. A big battery can increase the cost of a vehicle by a third.  

"And I don’t think we should prejudice the discussion by saying electrics are the answer," Marchionne said at a press event held at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor.  "They may be part of the answer."

Enter hydraulic hybrids. They tap into energy stored in high pressure canisters filled with fluid and nitrogen. They’re cheaper than electric hybrids, and already used in some big rigs and garbage trucks.

Now, using technology developed by the U.S. EPA., Chrysler will build and test a set of hydraulic hybrid minivans. The company hopes to see the same improvement in fuel efficiency as battery hybrids - about 30 to 35% -  but at a much lower cost.

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Auto/Economy
5:09 pm
Mon January 10, 2011

GM's Chevy Volt is more than a car - it's a technological strategy

The Chevy Volt received a charge with today's "Car of the Year" award.
General Motors

For people who follow the car business, the big news coming from the North American International Auto Show on Monday was no surprise.    

Still, GM employees enthusiastically cheered and applauded the announcement.

The Volt is GM’s extended range electric car.  GM has big plans riding on the electric car’s small frame.  In fact, the Volt is more than a car for GM. It’s an entire strategy.

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Auto/Economy
3:00 pm
Sun January 9, 2011

Toyota invests $50-million in new safety research center in Ann Arbor

 Toyota Motor Corporation has launched a new $50-million dollar safety research center in Ann Arbor, as the company seeks to recover from last year’s massive recalls of millions of cars. 


The money will pay for research on ways to reduce driver distraction, and better protect the most vulnerable passengers including children.  Chuck Gulash is senior executive engineer at Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor. 

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The Detroit Auto Show
10:55 am
Sun January 9, 2011

Drumroll Please - Car and Truck of the Year award coming soon

Many experts expect the Chevy Volt to win the "Car of the Year" award.
user mariodo wikimedia commons

The winner of the coveted North American Car and Truck of the Year Award will be announced Monday morning at the North American International Auto Show.

The awards are unique in the United States because -- instead of being given by a single media outlet -- they are awarded by a coalition of automotive journalists from the United States and Canada who represent magazines, television, radio, newspapers and web sites. 

The finalists for North American Car of the Year are:

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Auto
9:41 pm
Wed January 5, 2011

Ford Catching Up To Toyota In Quality - And Perception of Quality

Another survey, another big improvement for Ford Motor Company.

Consumer Reports says its subscribers ranked Ford second only to Toyota as the best brand this year.  It’s a notable reversal of fortunes for both companies.

According to Consumers Reports, subscribing car owners perceive the Ford brand as nearly equal to the Toyota brand, and on the key factors of safety, quality and value, they rank Ford better than Toyota.  

Ford also was rated best non-luxury brand in a recent J.D. Power survey on initial quality. 

"This was long-term planning that is now paying off," says Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.com.

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