Auto

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

Auto worker for a day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Auto/Economy
2:09 pm
Wed March 30, 2011

New restrictions for young drivers take effect

Sam Kim Flickr

Buckle up, kiddos!

A new law restricting Level 2 driver's license holders (basically, first year drivers who have passed their driving test) goes into effect today.

The restrictions include:

  • Drivers cannot carry more than one passenger below the age of 21 unless they are family members
  • Drivers cannot drive after 10 p.m. or before 5 a.m. Exceptions include going to and from work, and driving when accompanied by a parent, guardian or other adult (21 years and older).

The Detroit News has more:

Listen up, teenage drivers: Starting today, some of you will be driving less and with fewer pals in the car because of two big changes to Michigan's Graduated Driver Licensing Law...

The more teens in a vehicle, the greater the chance of a crash, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning, a division of the Michigan State Police.

According to the 2009 Michigan Traffic Crash fact sheet, younger drivers "were less likely to be alone in their car at the time of the crash," with 169 people ages 16-24 killed and nearly 18,000 injured.

"Studies have shown for teen drivers, the crash risk increases exponentially for each additional passenger, but parents seem unaware of the dangers associated with passengers and nighttime driving," said Michael L. Prince, director of the Office of Highway Safety Planning. "The new requirements and the awareness campaign will go a long way in improving teen driving safety."

AAA of Michigan is on board with the new changes, according to Jack Peet, traffic safety manager.

"This new law will help strengthen the graduated licensing approach where teens gain more driving privileges as they get older and acquire more experience," Peet said.

"Many studies have shown that limiting the number of teen passengers in a vehicle driven by a teen or novice driver helps make them safer."

Before today, Level 2 drivers were allowed to stay on the roads until midnight.

-Brian Short, Michigan Radio News

Auto
10:58 am
Wed March 30, 2011

Michigan Radio's auto-beat reporter tries out the assembly line

Tracy Samilton on the "assembly line". The reporters "recorded 22 safety 'incidents' in 20 minutes."
Michigan Radio

Michigan Radio’s auto-beat reporter Tracy Samilton spent the day yesterday at General Motors’ Orion assembly plant outside of Pontiac.

Samilton was one of 16 reporters who were invited by GM and the UAW to see just what it takes to build a car.

Joanne Muller was one of the other reporters on the scene. In a blog-post published today on Forbes.com Muller writes, “After spending half a day learning how to put together an automobile, I have this to say: it is not as easy as it looks.”

In the post, titled, “My New Appreciation for the American Auto Worker,” Muller explains:

My job was to use a power tool to attach front and rear “bumpers” on a wooden mock-up of a car as it rolled down the assembly line. Then later, I swapped jobs with a coworker and began installing “headlights” and “tail lights."

I was, in a word, terrible at it.

But, it wasn’t just Muller who couldn’t keep up. Apparently, our very own Tracy Samilton had some troubles of her own. Muller writes:

The other journalists were just as bad, or worse, at their jobs. Michigan Radio’s Tracy Samilton and I were like Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up in the candy factory. She dropped a “bumper” on the floor, meaning the part had to be scrapped and our team would not meet its cost target. Safety was also lacking: the journalists recorded 22 safety “incidents” in 20 minutes — including a worker who was hit four times by a car coming down the line. At the end of our first 20-minute shift, we produced only 13 cars (instead of 18, our target), with a total of 25 defects, which meant we would have to return Saturday for unscheduled overtime to fix the faulty cars and meet our production goals. I learned that’s a very bad thing.

Samilton says the visit to the plant made her realize the pressure and deadlines that today’s factory workers are under, “and I thought it was hard being a reporter,” she noted.

Here's a video of Samilton at work:

Auto/Economy
8:56 am
Wed March 30, 2011

Fiat/Chrysler CEO predicts "$100 billion" revenues by 2014

Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne speaking at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2011
(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne talked about an improving revenue picture ahead of a Fiat stockholders meeting today in Turin, Italy. He also says Fiat may soon increase its stake in Chrysler from 25% to 35% this year.   Fiat took over management of Chrysler 21 months ago, as the Detroit automaker emerged from bankruptcy protection.

Agenzia Giornalistica Italia reports that Marchionne told investors  that he is confident Fiat's 2011 goals will be met:

He explained, moreover, that in 2011, profits will amount to 37 billion(with the possibility of reaching more than 100 billion after 2014, due to the Chrysler integration effect), whereas the management outcome will range from 0.9 and 1.2 billion. Dividends policy will be confirmed (25% of net profits will go into dividends).

The Wall Street Journal quotes Marchionne as saying Fiat will increase this year its share of the European auto marker, where it saw a decline in 2010. 

"We expect a general improvement in trading conditions, with the exception of the passenger-car market in Europe, which will be negatively influenced by declines forecast for Italy and France...Nevertheless, we project that our market share will increase as a result of new model releases programmed for the second half".

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

Minivans fight "Loser Cruiser" stereotype with new sex appeal

The 2011 Nissan Quest

Pity the poor minivan. 

It hauls the family on vacations, never complaining.  

Carries the kids to school and soccer practice.  

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

It gets called names. 

"Loser cruiser."

"Road slug."   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Economy
3:08 pm
Tue March 29, 2011

Dow Chemical accidently pays CEO's personal bills

Dow Chemical admitted this week that the company accidently paid more than $700,000  worth of the company’s CEO’s personal expenses. 

Midland-based Dow Chemical explained in a filing with federal regulators that ‘shortcomings’ in the company’s record keeping led to the company paying $719,000 in bills that CEO Andrew Liveris should have paid himself. The filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission does not detail the expenses inadvertently charged to the company.  

 Liveris took home more than $21 million in compensation last year. A spokesman says he wrote a personal check to reimburse the company.  

 Liveris has been Dow’s CEO since 2004. He’s been the chairman of the board since 2006.

Economy of ideas
6:30 am
Tue March 29, 2011

$5,000 for good ideas in Grand Rapids

Steve Zaagman (middle) discusses his "upside-down-movie-night" with other contestants on February 22nd, 2011.
Paul Jendrasiak GRNow.com

Tonight two Michigan entrepreneurs will give away $5,000 in a competition devoted to creating buzz around good ideas. Rick DeVos and Bill Holsinger-Robinson are trying to help make the best ideas a reality.

On the last Tuesday of each month, Pomegranate Studios (a business incubator DeVos and Holsinger-Robinson founded in Grand Rapids two years ago) offers 5 people 5 minutes to pitch their idea for a business, an organization, art project, anything really.

A panel of 5 judges then awards up to five thousand dollars to those with the best ideas.

Bill Holsinger-Robinson says they want to give people a platform for their ideas to grow.

“The event is really less about the grant making and is more about people sharing ideas and then getting people to act on those ideas within a community.”

Read more
State Law
11:47 am
Mon March 28, 2011

Snyder signs unemployment benefits extension law

Governor Rick Snyder, (R) Michigan
(Courtesy of the Michigan governor's office)

Update 11:33 a.m.:

Michigan Congressman John Dingell (D) has released a statement condemning Snyder's signing of the new law. In a written statement, Representative Dingell said:

"This law is another in a long string of Republican assaults on working families and unions. In one fell swoop, the Republicans in Lansing have made it so that people in Michigan receive state employment benefits for a shorter period of time than anywhere else in the nation. Michigan does face a budget crisis, but it cannot be solved by declaring war on the unemployed, who - now more than ever - need all the help they can get in order to support their families and find new jobs."

Original Post 10:52 a.m.:

Governor Rick Snyder today signed legislation extending jobless benefits. The law will allow 35,000 Michiganders to receive an addition 20 weeks of federal jobless benefits. Their benefits would have expired April 1st. In a written statement, Snyder says: 

"These benefits are a lifeline for many Michigan families who are struggling in this challenging economy... Cutting them off so abruptly would have jeopardized the well-being of those who are trying hard to find work. Now that we have continued this safety net, we must renew our focus on improving Michigan's economic climate. We will continue driving forward with our job-creating reforms so that fewer people need to rely on unemployment benefits."

Democrats pushed for the extension, but many eventually opposed the final version. The final legislation was amended to reduce the number state jobless benefits from 26 to 20 weeks.

Republicans say reducing the length of state benefits will reduce the burden on state businesses that pay into the state jobless benefits pool. By cutting the number weeks of state jobless benefits,  future unemployed Michiganders will be eligible for fewer weeks of additional federal unemployment benefits.  

According to the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, the average unemployed Michigander uses about 19 weeks of jobless benefits. Michigan's unemployment rate declined to 10.4% in February. There were slightly less than a half million people in Michigan without a job who wanted one.  

Michigan's jobless rate is still about 2 percentage points higher than the national average. But the state's jobless rate has been declining since September 2009.

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Auto
10:48 am
Mon March 28, 2011

Founder of Automobile Magazine Dies

David E. Davis, Jr., founder of Automobile Magazine
Automobile Magazine

The founder and original editor of Automobile Magazine has died. The magazine says the man who was once called "the dean of automotive journalism" died in Ann Arbor, Michigan after complications from bladder cancer surgery.

This from Automobile Magazine Deputy Editor Joe DeMatio:

Davis founded Ann Arbor-based Automobile Magazine with Rupert Murdoch’s backing in 1985 after leaving his second stint in the editor’s chair at Car and Driver, which he moved from New York City to Ann Arbor in 1977.

Davis, who had already refashioned Car and Driver into one of the most literate and entertaining special-interest magazines in America, imagined Automobile Magazine as a celebration of the automotive good life with the rallying cry “No Boring Cars,” but the slogan could just as easily have been applied to everything else in his life:

No boring stories.

No boring meetings.

No boring road trips.

No boring wardrobes.

No boring friends.

No boring employees.

No boring food.

No boring parties.

When he was stuck with boring bosses, he suffered them most reluctantly, and in fact it was his disgust with the management team at CBS, which bought Car and Driver from Ziff-Davis Publishing in the mid-1980s, that propelled him to quit what he had considered the best job in the world, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver.

DeMatio writes that "Davis is survived by his wife, Jeannie, a.k.a. J.L.K., a.k.a. 'the woman who changed my life,' his sons Matthew (himself a well-known automotive journalist) and David III, his daughter, Peg, and his stepdaughter Eleanor, and stepsons Vincent and Tony Kuhn."

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Auto
7:00 am
Mon March 28, 2011

Plant shutdowns in Japan continue to disrupt U.S. auto industry

Ofunato, Japan: March 15th, 2011
Fox News Insider Flickr

The auto industry disruptions triggered by Japan's earthquake and tsunami are about to get worse, the Associated Press reports. From the AP:

In the weeks ahead, car buyers will have difficulty finding the model they want in certain colors, thousands of auto plant workers will likely be told to stay home, and companies such as Toyota, Honda and others will lose billions of dollars in revenue. More than two weeks since the natural disaster, inventories of crucial car supplies - from computer chips to paint pigments – are dwindling fast as Japanese factories that make them struggle to restart.

Because parts and supplies are shipped by slow-moving boats, the real drop-off has yet to be felt by factories in the U.S., Europe and Asia. That will come by the middle of April.

Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton first reported on how the natural disasters in Japan could disrupt the U.S. auto industry on March 11th.

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What's Working
6:15 am
Mon March 28, 2011

Michigan wine: Success in a bottle

Vineyard in Leelanau County
user farlane flickr

As we continue our “What’s Working” series this week, Christina Shockley sits down to speak with Linda Jones, the Executive Director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council. Over the past decade, the wine industry in Michigan has grown ten to fifteen percent each year, with most of the wine being produced in the southwest and northwest regions of the Lower Peninsula.

With 14,600 acres of vineyards, Michigan ranks fourth amongst all states in grape production. Most of these grapes are used to make juices, but about 2,000 acres of vineyards are devoted solely to wine grape production, making Michigan the eighth largest producer of wine grapes. Ms. Jones says that when we talk about Michigan’s wine industry, we are really talking about the grape industry as well.

“They’re an integrated function. Many of the wineries in Michigan grow their own fruit. And our program is housed in the Michigan Department of Agriculture because wine is really an exemplary industry for value-added agriculture, meaning you take a crop that is grown here in Michigan and you add value to it on the farm property and attract customers to come and visit you, and that translates into a huge economic boom for that area when you can do that.”   

In a state that has seen its industries and population decline in the past decade, Michigan’s wine industry has continued to grow steadily. Jones says this is because wine production incorporates two of Michigan’s strongest assets.

“It combines our second and third largest industries: agriculture and tourism. Michigan is a long-standing fruit-producing state, especially on the west side of the state, but increasingly throughout Michigan we are planting wine grapes with new varieties that are being developed.”

But Michigan isn’t just good at growing fruit because we’ve been doing it for centuries. The climate in Michigan is particularly well-suited for growing grapes, says Jones.

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Economy
4:26 pm
Fri March 25, 2011

Population expert sees good news in state Census data

The man in charge of charting population trends for Michigan says he would not be surprised to see the out-migration of people from the state reverse course.

The new U.S. Census data says Michigan lost people over the last decade.

State Demographer Ken Darga says Michiganders left the state in droves over the past decade for places like Florida where jobs were more plentiful. Now, Darga says, they may be ready to come back -- Florida’s jobless rate is higher than Michigan’s.

Darga discussed the good news on the Michigan public TV show  “Off The Record.”

“The economy is starting to turn around. There’s a lot of good news about Michigan’s economy in the past year or so.”

“Michigan has lost a lot of young people to Florida – as well as senior citizens – because Florida used to be one of the big states that had low unemployment and it was a place you could go to find a job while Michigan was in a one-state recession. But now, Florida’s unemployment rate is higher than Michigan’s.”

“One of the things I’ll be looking for is to see if some of those Michigan natives who moved to Florida are going to start coming back.”

The U-S Bureau of Labor Statistics says Michigan added 71 thousand more jobs than it lost in the past 12 months and its unemployment rate fell more than any other state’s.

Also, the decline in Michigan’s jobless rate for the first two months of 2011 was due to more people working, and not to discouraged jobseekers checking out of the workforce.

Michigan and Kentucky are tied for the nation’s fifth highest unemployment rate.

Changing Gears
12:26 pm
Fri March 25, 2011

Local governments face more losses as cases pile up in tax courts

Donald Betlem bought this home for $5,000 in 2008. He had to convince Detroit it wasn't worth ten times as much.
Kate Davidson Changing Gears

Property values have plummeted across the region.

That means cities and towns have watched their tax revenue plunge as well. But many homeowners and businesses think their property taxes are still too high.

The result is a double hit.

Local governments are in fiscal crisis, and the tax courts of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are clogged with people who want refunds.

People like Donald Betlem.

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State Legislature
4:42 pm
Wed March 23, 2011

Legislators debating extending jobless benefits

People who file for unemployment benefits next year would be eligible for fewer weeks of payments under a Republican measure approved by the state Senate. The Legislature must approve a jobless benefits package this week in order for the state to receive federal assistance for the program.

Thirty-five thousand Michiganders stand to lose their benefits if the legislature does not agree to the extension by April 1st. 

Democratic state Senator Tupac Hunter says Republicans are using the opportunity to undercut benefits for people who seek the payments in the future.

“This is 100 percent federally funded, we have an opportunity to address that today, and I think that we’ve chosen political games over helping our workers across this great state.”  

Republican state Senator Tom Casperson says the additional benefits would put too much strain on businesses. 

“Putting people into jobs is the way to fix the problem. But we don’t get there when every time we open our mouths we demonize the very job providers that are going to provide the jobs for us. This is trying to offer an opportunity for both sides; a safety net and add to the unemployment, and a fairness to the business people paying the bill.”

The bill was passed and now moves to the state House for final approval.

Economy
3:36 pm
Wed March 23, 2011

Michigan's unemployment rate declined in February

(Flickr ziggy fresh)

Michigan’s unemployment rate dropped slightly in February. Michigan’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined by 3 tenths of one percent last month to 10.4%.

The state’s jobless number was still one and a half percentage points above the national unemployment rate of 8.9%.  

Michigan’s unemployment rate has been falling since September 2009. And last month, the number of jobless Michiganders fell below a half million for the first time since November 2008.

Economy
12:31 pm
Tue March 22, 2011

Michigan loses $300 million in sales tax annually to online shopping

Businesses without physical stores in Michigan can't be required to collect sales tax from customers.
ehow.com

Michigan’s budget problems could be helped if the state were able to collect taxes on things people buy online. But federal rules limit the state’s powers.

The U.S. Supreme Court says states can’t force a business to collect sales taxes unless it has a physical store in the state.

Terry Stanton is with the Michigan Department of Treasury.

He  says that’s costing Michigan big money.

"We estimate that's more than $300 million a year that the state will miss out on because there's no requirement for sellers to collect the sales taxes," Stanton says.

Auto/Economy
12:01 pm
Tue March 22, 2011

Wyoming approves plans to demolish huge former GM Stamping Plant

Former GM Stamping Plant in Wyoming, MI.
Lindsey Smith Michigan Radio

A 2-million-square-foot former General Motors stamping plant in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming will be demolished this year. Monday night Wyoming’s city council approved plans to destroy the 75-year-old building and redevelop the site.

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Auto/Economy
7:59 am
Tue March 22, 2011

Michigan auto insurance rates among the nation's highest

Opps. A fender bender in Ann Arbor. Michiganders spend a lot for auto insurance.
Steve Carmody Michigan Radio

In one study, Michigan had the highest auto insurance rates in the nation. In another, Michigan ranked 11th in the nation.

That's according to a piece from Dawson Bell at the Detroit Free Press. Bell writes both studies cited "the state's unique mandate for unlimited coverage for personal injuries as a primary cause for high rates."

From the article:

Michigan auto insurance rates led the country -- $2,541 a year for a hypothetical 40-year-old man with a clean driving record -- in an annual survey released last week by the consumer insurance information site insure.com.

The Michigan rate jumped more than 21% from the same survey a year earlier, overtaking Louisiana, which topped the list last year.

Vermont, at $995 a year, was the cheapest place to buy auto insurance, the survey found.

Economy
3:44 pm
Mon March 21, 2011

Analysts predict a boost to Michigan's tourism industry this year

A lighthouse, silhouetted against a pinkish horizon, overlooking Lake Michigan
(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Michigan’s tourism industry is expected to see a boost in business this year.  Michigan State University tourism experts are predicting a 4% increase tourism spending this year, thanks in part to an expected increase in business travel. 

 MSU researcher Sarah Nicholls says Michigan's tourism industry will build on improving conditions seen last year.

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Macomb County
1:18 pm
Mon March 21, 2011

Is a casino in Macomb County's future?

(flickr blueeyes)

Macomb County executive Mark Hackel says a privately owned casino could boost business along the county's waterfront on Lake St. Clair.  The Macomb Daily reports: Mark Hackel said he plans to reach out to local communities to see who might be interested.

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