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. 

user dt10111 / Flickr

Pontiac may be emerging from emergency management, but it's still far from a thriving city.

The city lost thousands of auto jobs before and during the recession, and has fewer than 60,000 residents.

Abandoned homes, schools and industrial buildings abound.  

Soon, Oakland County will hire a consultant to develop a revitalization plan for the city.

Bret Rasegan is with the Oakland County Development office. 

He says Pontiac is important to the county, in the same way that Detroit is important to southeast Michigan.

Wikimedia

With the venerable Woodward Dream Cruise just days away, thousands of metro Detroiters are pulling the

covers off the precious classic American car in the garage, and buffing her to a shine.

Few of us know that Swedes share the same love affair.

A few weeks ago, Vegas Tenold attended the 30th annual "Power Big Meet" in Vasteras, Sweden.  He writes for the New York Times:

hstreetagent

New home construction improved 30% in Michigan last year, compared to the year before.  That's the opposite of a problem, right?

Except......one of the state's two largest utilities, Consumers Energy, wasn't prepared for the growth.

Bob Filka is CEO of the Home Builders Association of Michigan.

He says Consumers had made its plans based on a 5% growth estimate.  The result was the utility did not have enough staff and resources in place to deal with the mini-boom in home building.

Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Update Monday, August 4th, 9:40am: Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins says the water ban is lifted in northwest Ohio and drinking water for 400,000 residents is safe. We'll have more details as they come in.

Sunday, August 3, 2014:   More than 400,000 people in Toledo and surrounding areas are without drinking water for a second day, due to a huge cyanobacteria bloom in Lake Erie, where the area gets its water supply.  The cyanobacteria, sometimes referred to as blue-green algae, create a dangerous toxin called microcystin, and exposure to the toxin can cause serious health issues. 

On Sunday afternoon, a boat hastily chartered by the National Wildlife Federation cruises over to see the massive cyanobacteria bloom floating near the city of Toledo.  It's hot, and it's a pretty day, but the water looks oddly bright green.

That's the cyanobacteria bloom. The blooms have been appearing for a couple of decades, but they're getting worse.

Toledo Councilman Larry Sykes says he and other officials have been worried about this for a long time.

via bentiviolioforcongress.com

Few districts have a Congressman with as colorful a background as Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan's 11th District -- Army veteran, teacher, reindeer rancher and Santa Claus impersonator. 

Now, he's facing an overwhelming challenge from a candidate within his own party.

Two years ago, Bentivolio was sent to Congress almost on a fluke. 

The Accidental Congressman

Bentivolio was an obscure Tea Party challenger on the primary ballot.  He had no political experience and was facing a four-term incumbant, Thaddeus McCotter, who was considered a shoe-in for a fifth term. 

But McCotter resigned from the race in disgrace, after his staff was caught forging and photocopying the signatures on his nominating petitions.

So, voters in the Republican-leaning district chose the only person on the ballot with an (R) after his name - Kerry Bentivolio.

That's despite a write-in challenge from a more traditional Republican candidate, who criticized Bentivolio for embarrassing details from his past.  Those included allegations that he verbally mistreated high school students in his classroom when he was a teacher, his role in an amateur movie which showed the President of the United States orchestrating the attacks of 9-11, and, of course, his portrayals of Santa Claus at parades and similar holiday events, with the reindeer he raised on his own farm in Milford Township.

GM

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has introduced bills that could subject auto companies and auto executives to tough new penalties for delaying a recall.

McCaskill, a Democrat, has been leading an investigation into GM's ignition switch recall scandal.  The company admits it delayed a recall of 2.6 million small cars for ten years - and at least 13 people died as a result.

McCaskill's Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Enhancement Act of 2014 would:

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

A year after the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety introduced it, many automakers are still having trouble designing cars that can do well on the "small overlap" crash test.

A small overlap crash happens when just the corner of the front of a car hits something, like another car, or a tree or a pole.

That kind of a crash can bypass the "crumple zone" of the front of the car, which is meant to absorb the force of the crash, protecting the people inside the passenger compartment from death or injury.

IIHS recently tested 12 small new cars for small overlap protection; only one, the Mini Cooper Countryman, received the highest grade of "Good."

Five others, the Chevy Volt, the Ford C-Max Hybrid, the Mitsubishi Lancer, the Scion FR-S, and the Subaru BRZ, got the next highest mark of "Acceptable."

Because the Chevy Volt also offers buyers the option of a front collision warning, the Institute gave the car its Top Safety Pick Plus award.

Four cars got a "Poor" rating, including the Fiat 500-L, the Nissan Juke, the Nissan Leaf, and the Mazda 5.

IIHS / Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

A new analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds that a disproportionate number of teenagers who died in car accidents were driving older, smaller cars.

Small, older model cars tend to be lightweight and lack electronic stability control and side air bags. 

Yet these are the cars parents typically buy for their teens, who are the least experienced drivers on the road. 

Russ Rader of IIHS says cost shouldn't be the only factor when choosing a car for a young driver.

Photo by Haris Alibasic / City of Grand Rapids

Michigan's two largest utilities, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, have about $26 million in renewable energy surcharges in the kitty, after both companies overestimated how much their renewable energy projects would cost.

Now, a solar work group convened by the Michigan Public Service Commission recommends, rather than returning it to taxpayers, the companies should invest the money in new solar projects.

Only about 1/4 of 1% of Michigan's energy comes from solar.

Ford Motor Company

Alan Mulally has at least one part-time job now, after leaving Ford Motor Company in late June.

Mulally was the Dearborn automaker's CEO from September, 2006 until June 30, 2014.

Mulally was appointed to serve on Google's Board of Directors on July 9. 

The announcement was made on July 15.

A farm in southeast Michigan.
Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Michigan and other northern states planted a record amount of corn, wheat, and soybeans this year, and the primary reason is climate change.

"We are clearly seeing more growing degree days and a longer growing season in the state of Michigan," says Jim Byrum, President of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, "which means some of those crops can be produced further north."

psurecreation

Students who purchased a gym membership at Michigan State University got better grades and were less likely to drop out, according to a study by MSU Professor of Kinesiology James Pivarnik.

Pivarnik says there are studies that show K-12 students do better in school if they get exercise, but this is one of the first studies suggesting there could be an academic benefit for college students who work out.

And there's ample evidence that exercise is good for people's mental and physical health. 

"The hard part is, well, how do we get people to do it?" asks Pivarnik.  "And if part of it is, having to pay this fee, then, okay."

Pivarnik says he has to do other studies to rule out what else could account for the better grades. 

Car dealership.
GM

Here's the main case to be made for annual car sales in the U.S. exceeding 18 million some day: 

Unlike other mature car markets (Europe), the U.S. population is still growing.  So....the more people there are, the more cars they will buy.  

The argument acknowledges that many young people are postponing buying cars, but says that's just because it's hard to get a job right now.  As soon as the economy improves, they'll buy cars, just like their parents.

But a new study by AlixPartners says that's ignoring a lot of trends that will push car ownership rates down.

Volkswagen

It hasn't been a good two years for the UAW.

In late 2012, Governor Snyder signed a law making Michigan - the birthplace of the UAW - a so-called right-to-work state.  The new law allows people in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues. 

Then, in February of 2014, the union lost a key vote to organize more than 1,500 blue-collar employees at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant.

UAW leaders appeared confident, at first, that the vote would go their way.

Ford Motor

The auto industry in Europe may be on the way back up, after hitting rock bottom last year, but its woes are by no means over, says Ford's head of Europe, Middle East and Africa, Stephen Odell.

Overcapacity is a persistent concern, he says.   Some European factories are still operating at about 70% of their capacity, although Ford itself has taken steps to reduce its factory and labor costs - having closed one Ford plant in the U.K. and soon to close another in Belgium.

Odell says the biggest factor depressing car sales is the 20 to 25% unemployment rates in southern European countries like Spain and Greece.

"I think the biggest inhibiters is probably employment levels," Odell told a roundtable of journalists in Dearborn.  "Which is why, in our forecast, we have a sort of modest and slow recovery for the next four to five years."

Odell says Ford does expect to regain profitability in Europe next year.

EPA workers sample the air near the Enbridge oil spill in Michigan
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A "who's who" of environmental groups say a 67-year-old pipeline in the straits of Mackinac  could be a serious threat to the Great Lakes.

The pipeline is owned by Enbridge.  

Howard Learner is head of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

"It's an old aging pipeline," says Learner.  "We can't afford to have happen in the Great Lakes what happened with the Enbridge pipeline and the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.  You know, it's already been a couple of years and we are still cleaning it up.  "

In 2010, more than a million gallons of oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River after an Enbridge pipeline rupture.

Lerner's group, along with 16 other major environmental groups in Michigan, have sent a letter requesting an urgent meeting with Governor Snyder about the pipeline.

Learner says Enbridge may not be maintaining the pipeline properly, including not installing enough supports for the pipeline. 

And he says the company may be sending oil through it under too much pressure, but there's no way to know until the state forces the company to disclose the information.

There's also a question whether state  regulations written more than 60 years ago meet current standards.

*Correction - A previous version of this story said "more than a million barrels of oil spilled." It was more than a million gallons. Story corrected above.

Adee Braun / Changing Gears

An analyst who tracks the fossil fuels industry says natural economic and political trends will make the fight against global warming easier than many people predict.  

Phllip Verleger runs PKVerleger, LLC, which provides economic consulting to firms, governments, and individuals on energy and commodity markets.

Verleger thinks global oil use will plummet much faster than most people believe, for three main reasons.

Flickr

The app-based, taxi-like services UberX  and Lyft are in talks with the city of Ann Arbor - after the city sent the companies a "cease and desist" letter. 

This is just the latest of many legal tangles across the country for the companies, which are operating in a new grey area of transportation-for-hire. 

The companies say they are "rideshare services."  State and local transportation officials call them "transportation network companies," but insist that many of the regulations applying to traditional taxis also apply to these new services.

morguefile

The state has approved a permit for a controversial exploratory oil well in Scio Township close to Ann Arbor.

The approval came despite fierce opposition from residents and Scio Township's board of trustees.

Adam Wygant is with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

He says because of the public comments, the state took two months to study the application - much longer than the 24 days it normally takes to approve a permit for an exploratory oil well.

Wygant says oil wells tend to be less disruptive than people fear, and often, they get used to them.

Centers for Disease Control

Michigan is making progress against West Nile.

600 people were infected with West Nile in 2002 when the mosquito-borne virus first appeared.

Last year, there were only 34 cases.

Angela Minicuci is with the state Department of Community Health.

She says many cities now regularly flush out the stagnant pools of water where mosquitos that carry West Nile  breed.

She says individual homeowners' efforts are also contributing to fewer cases.

Atlanta Jeep Ram Dodge

Fiat Chrysler continued its climb back to health in June.  It was the 51st month in a row the automaker increased its U.S. year-over-year sales.

The long streak of sales gains is being led by the Jeep and RAM brands. 

Jeep sales rose 28% compared to last June, and RAM sales were up 14%.

"In spite of two fewer selling days in June versus a year ago, we were able to increase our sales 9% and post our strongest June sales in seven years," said Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales for Chrysler.

The automaker remains weak in terms of small and midsize car sales.  The Dodge Dart has performed well under expectations, selling only 7,225 in June. 

But the company has higher hopes for the new Chrysler 200, which began shipping to dealers in late spring.

General Motors

General Motors' sales rose 1% in June - despite two fewer sales days in the month, despite a delayed recall scandal, and despite the company issuing a record number of recalls.

The Detroit automaker's sales were the best for June since 2007.

Karl Brauer is an analyst with Kelly Blue Book. 

He says the media and Congress have displayed an intense interest in GM's admission that it delayed an ignition switch recall for eleven years. 

Customers aren't paying as much attention.   

"Most people look at this recall as old GM and old models that has nothing to do with what's in the showroom right now," says Brauer.

GM recalled an additional 7.36 million cars  for what it calls "unintended ignition switch rotation."

That's the same problem at the root of an earlier recall of cars with a defective ignition switch. In February, GM recalled 2.6 million Cobalts, HHRs, Saturn Ions and other small cars with a defective ignition switch.

In both recalls, the car's ignition switch can suddenly turn off, which disables the power steering, power brakes, and air bags.

The new recall is for:

An image from the consumer alert issued for the GM ignition switch recall.
NHTSA

GM will pay a minimum of $1 million to victims of serious or fatal crashes involving cars with a faulty ignition switch. 

GM admits it delayed a recall of small cars with a defective switch for 11 years. 

GM says 13 people died and 54 were injured when the ignition switch turned off, disabling the power steering, power brakes, seat belt pretensioners and air bags. 

But attorneys for victims' families say there are many more such cases. 

The program is run by Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw similar programs for victims of the BP oil spill and 9/11.  He says it won't be easy to determine who's eligible.

"So many of these accidents occurred long ago," Feinberg says. "The car is gone, and we've gotta come up with circumstantial evidence."

But Feinberg says he will work with families who wish to file claims, or their attorneys, to guide them through what kinds of evidence would substantiate a claim – such as police reports, medical reports, black box data, and witness statements.

The program will also pay for victims' lost earnings and long-term care.

user rob zand / Flickr

Another city that gets its water from Detroit is talking about pulling out of the system.  

Greg Theokus  is Mayor Pro Tem of Grosse Pointe Park.

He says Detroit's water is already too expensive.

Grosse Pointe Park pays $1.5 million now for its water. That's up from $600,000 ten years ago.

Theokus says Grosse Pointe Park may have no choice, if Detroit water rates skyrocket due to the bankruptcy.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Another legal obstacle to building a new international bridge in Detroit has been swept away. 

An appeals court panel on Friday struck down challenges made by the Ambassador Bridge's owner and some minority community groups. 

The groups said the Federal Highway Administration's decision to build a new public-private bridge in the downriver community of Delray was arbitrary – and officials deferred too much to Canada's wishes. 

But the appeals court pointed out the decision took years to accomplish and that many other factors besides Canada's wishes were considered.

morguefile.com

For the third year in a row, Detroit has set a six p.m. curfew for minors under age 18 on the night the city has its annual Independence Day fireworks.

The fireworks are scheduled for the evening of June 23rd.

This time, the ACLU of Michigan is objecting to the curfew.

Attorney Michael Steinberg says the curfew is too broad and is likely unconstitutional.

He says the city has a legitimate interest in preventing crime and other incidents at the popular event --

Hyundai

The increased complexity of cars is causing an uptick in problems reported in the first 90 days of ownership, according to an annual survey by J.D. Power.

Problems reported by owners in the first 90 days rose 3% for 2014 model year cars over last year. 

The group says that's because of the increased complexity and features in new cars, especially when it comes to voice recognition and Bluetooth syncing. 

The harsh winter also caused some extra problems with paint, engine performance, and heating systems. 

General Motors has found another problem with ignition switches in vehicles.

In what's sure to become extra ammunition in Wednesday's Senate committee interrogation of GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, the automaker this week is recalling 3.16 million mostly older model vehicles to replace slotted keys with keys with a hole.

The company says the fix will prevent the cars from inadvertently turning off if there is extra weight on the key ring and the car goes over a bump.

The cars involved in the recall:

The Obama administration is telling local police not to disclose details about powerful new surveillance devices they obtained from the federal government.

That's according to the Associated Press.

The devices were developed to monitor enemy cell phone communications on the battlefield. 

Now, the devices, known by the nicknames, "Hailstorm," and "Stingray," are being used as a domestic law enforcement tool.   

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