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Archive for March, 2011

GM Selling Off Delphi Stake

Federal pension fund also selling off stake, leaving hedge funds in control.

by on Mar.31, 2011

Delphi CEO Rodney O'Neal.

Putting further distance between it and its one-time parts subsidiary, General Motors will sell off its stake in the massive automotive supplier Delphi.

The $3.8 billion deal will be paired with the sell-off of the stake in Delphi held by the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp.  Both GM and the PBGC received their shares in the supplier following its emergence from bankruptcy protection in mid-2009.

Those moves will leave control of Delphi Automotive in the hands of the hedge funds that also took a stake in the supplier as it wrapped up what was the longest run through Chapter 11 in U.S. industrial history.

The decision to sell off its Delphi holdings comes just weeks after GM also generated $1.0 billion through the sale of its preferred holdings in Ally Financial, the lender once known as GMAC.  The Ally transaction will generate a one-time gain of $300 million, while GM will book a $1.6 billion profit from the sale of its Delphi shares.

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“We are systematically delivering on our commitment to strengthen and simplify our balance sheet,” said Dan Ammann, GM senior vice president and chief financial officer as of April 1.

Officially known as Class A Membership, GM took its stake in the supplier as part of the complex financial package that helped Delphi finally get back to business after it voluntarily plunged itself into bankruptcy in 2005.

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UAW Membership Posts Rare Gain

But is it more than a temporary turnaround?

by on Mar.31, 2011

A 2011 Ford Focus at the Michigan Assembly Plant.

Things haven’t been going well for the United Auto Workers Union in recent years.  The maker has not only had to grant significant concessions to Detroit’s Big Three automakers, but membership has been steadily declining – the result of the Motor City’s decline as well as the impact of productivity gains.

After years of decline, however, things may be turning around.  The UAW has filed its annual report with the U.S. Labor Department, showing the first increase in membership in recent memory – though the union’s rolls remain but a fraction of their one-time peak.

The UAW’s 2010 LM-2 report shows membership increasing from 355,191 in 2009 to 376,612 in 2010.  But that’s still down by nearly half from 2001, when membership stood at 701,818.  The long-influential UAW’s rolls peaked in 1979, when it counted 1.53 million dues-paying members.

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“We are pleased that our membership increased in 2010 by 21,000,” said UAW President Bob King. “This increase is a reflection of new organizing by the UAW, the recovery of the domestic auto industry and UAW members who won a first contract during the year.  We hope to continue this growth in 2011 and beyond, as we fight to win a more fair and democratic process for workers to organize unions in the United States,” he said.

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Ford Aiming to Engineer a Digital Child

Virtual “dummy” could help save real kids.

by on Mar.31, 2011

Ford's Dr. Steve Rouhana with child crash dummies.

Can a virtual child help save the 1,300 or so real kids killed each year in motor vehicle accidents?

That’s what Ford Motor Co. is hoping.  The maker has launched a high-tech project to recreate the very complicated anatomy of a young child in digital form to make it easier to develop more advanced seatbelts and other safety systems.

“The virtual child will allow us to better understand how a youngster interacts with a restraint system,” explained Ford’s senior technical researcher Dr. Steve Rouhana, “so they can be made more effective.”

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The new project is the latest effort in safety research that, at Ford, goes back a half century.  Like its competitors, the maker routinely crashes prototypes of its future products to see how well they will perform in the real world.  But, in recent years, Ford has been steadily migrating from physical crash testing to digital simulations.

That has a number of advantages.  For one thing, it costs a lot less than producing dozens of hand-assembled prototypes, and it takes a lot less time.  And as the software gets better, the virtual crashes have become as accurate – sometimes even better – at reproducing a real world collision.

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First Look: Hyundai Blue2 Fuel Cell Concept

Is a production car coming?

by on Mar.31, 2011

Hyundai hints the Blue2 fuel cell vehicle might be more than just a concept car

Remember hydrogen…as in fuel cells?  It wasn’t all that long ago that battery cars were kids to play with and environmentalists, regulators and automakers alike were talking confidently of the “hydrogen economy.”

Well, these days, the focus is on what the industry calls “electrification,” which takes in everything from mild hybrids all the way up to battery-electric vehicles.  And even though much of the government funding has been shifted from hydrogen to battery research, there are those who believe that fuel cells are still the ultimate – and eventual – solution to environmental and energy problems.

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Apparently, Hyundai is either in that camp or at least hedging its bets.  The maker will be pulling the covers off the new Blue2 fuel cell concept at the Seoul Motor Show, this week, and its promise to take “early leadership in the FCEV market” suggests that this is more than a work of fantasy-in-chrome.

The Blue-Square, as the Koreans tell us Blue2 should be pronounced, is a slick sedan incorporating Hyundai’s new “Intersected Flow” design language, which we’re left to wonder if this approach will replace the current “Fluidic Sculpture” theme that has been appearing in products such as the latest Hyundai Sonata and new Elantra.

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First Look: Kia Naimo

A battery car for squares?

by on Mar.31, 2011

Naimo, Kia's third battery car concept, adopts the square shape familiar to fans of the Soul.

A first look at the new Naimo concept vehicle and you might think you’re looking at the next-generation Kia Soul.  They do share some basics, including the hard-edged new prototype its name, Naimo derived from the Korean word for “square shape.”

But with its pottery-like finish, the new Kia Naimo is the latest in a string of battery-powered prototypes from the Korean carmaker, this one making its debut today at the annual Seoul Motor Show.  As with many recent electric vehicles, Kia’s concept targets an urban market where today’s relatively limited batteries won’t produce excess range anxiety.

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A relatively simple design nonetheless boasts some distinctive features, including a wraparound windshield and an unusual, asymmetric sunroof.  The front and rear LED lamps use a dot-like design.

Though it sits on a modest B-segment platform, Kia targeted a more upscale market for the Naimo, offering a Korean oak-laden interior contrasted by the use of a classic Korean paper-finished headliner.

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Plans for Buick “Volt” Not Yet Locked in Stone

GM sources deny a Buick version of Opel Ampera is on tap.

by on Mar.31, 2011

Some reports say Buick will get a version of the Opel Ampera plug-in, but sources say the brand will likely have to wait - then get a more distinctive variant of the Volt-based plug-in.

Not long ago written off for dead, the Buick brand is staging a remarkable recovery and, so far this year has outsold Lexus and come close to tackling BMW.  No wonder General Motors is rushing to expand Buick’s relatively modest line-up.

Could a plug-in hybrid be in the works?  That’s been the subject of some intense speculation in automotive and media circles, with some reports suggesting that the brand will soon get a version of the Chevrolet Volt – or more precisely, a version of the Opel Ampera, itself the restyled version of the Volt being launched by GM’s European subsidiary.

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Several well-placed sources confirmed that is one of the possibilities under consideration – and according to one of those, there are “a slew of opportunities we’re looking at.”  But don’t expect to see a Buick plug-in rolling into showrooms anytime soon, if the project even happens, those sources stress.  There are a variety of factors that will influence where GM next rolls out a product using the so-called Voltec drivetrain shared by Volt and Ampera.

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Chevrolet Offers Tease of New Malibu

Classic American sedan getting Shanghai preview.

by on Mar.31, 2011

Chevrolet offers a hint of what's coming with the launch of the all-new Malibu sedan.

Chevrolet is getting ready to roll out an all-new version of its Malibu sedan – but in an interesting turn reflecting the realities of the new automotive world order, the new 2012 model will be making its formal debut not at the upcoming New York Auto Show but at the year’s big motor show in Shanghai – with an appearance at the Big Apple’s Jacob Javits convention center to follow.

The teaser shot shown here provides a glimpse of the new car’s taillights, which also reflect some of the realities of the new GM, a more intriguing, squared-off shape, influenced by the Camaro, populated by what appear to be LED bulbs.

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Along with a more modern and – one hopes – more visually appealing design, General Motors reveals that the new sedan will be a bit wider than the outgoing Malibu.  That’s all the more noteworthy considering it will ride on the smaller Epsilon II platform which, for those familiar with GM nomenclature, is shared with several other global models, including the new Buick Regal.

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China Now Leads in Clean Energy Investments

Will new Obama proposals help U.S. regain lead?

by on Mar.30, 2011

As President Barack Obama exhorts Americans to get behind a coherent energy policy, a new study shows the U.S. falling  behind in the race to develop new, clean sources of energy, according to a new study by Pew Charitable Trusts.

Last year, clean energy investment across the globe grew by 30%, to $243 billion last year, with China continuing to solidify its position as the world’s clean energy leader by investing a record $54.4 billion in 2010.

China’s investment represented a 39% increase from 2009, the new Pew Study said.  Germany was second in the G-20, up from third last year, after experiencing a 100% increase in investment, to $41.2 billion.

“The clean energy sector is emerging as one of the most dynamic and competitive in the world, witnessing 630% growth in finance and investments since 2004,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s Clean Energy Program.

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“Countries like China, Germany and India were attractive to financiers because they have national policies that support renewable energy standards, carbon reduction targets and/or incentives for investment and production and that create long-term certainty for investors,” she said.

The United States, which had maintained the top spot until 2008, dropped another rung in 2010 to third, with $34 billion invested.

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Chrysler/Fiat Could See Revenues Surge to $140 bil by 2014

Chrysler IPO could be delayed a year, Marchionne advises Fiat shareholders.

by on Mar.30, 2011

Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

Though the U.S. half of the trans-Atlantic alliance may be still be struggling to turn itself around, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of both Chrysler and its partner Fiat, painted an upbeat picture for Italian shareholders, today, projecting that the two makers will boost revenues to 100 billion Euros – about $141 billion – by 2014.

The big bump will come on the Fiat side, said the Canadian-educated executive, with the Italian maker’s revenues expected to jump from 35.8 billion Euros, last year, to 64 billion, while Chrysler is projected to grow to 36 billion Euros. Marchionne has previously indicated his belief that Chrysler, which emerged from a brief bankruptcy nearly two years ago, will be turning a profit by then, as well.

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But the chief executive also cautioned Fiat shareholders that he may have to go back on earlier plans to take Chrysler public again during the second half of 2011.  During a question-and-answer session, Marchionne admitted, “I don’t know” if the long-discussed Chrysler IPO will happen this year or in 2012, stressing that the goal is to “be ready to be a public company again.”

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Obama Wants to Slash Oil Imports, Shift Govt. Fleet to Green Vehicles

Outlines energy policy calling for shift to cleaner fuels.

by on Mar.30, 2011

President Obama discussing energy policy.

President Barack Obama, warning there are “no quick fixes,” outlined a broad energy policy that he hopes will win broad bipartisan support at a time when oil prices have hit their highest levels in three years.

A key goal will be to better access untapped sources of domestic sources of oil and gas even as the nation moves forward on a goal of trimming petroleum imports by a third by 2025, the president declared during a speech today at Washington’s Georgetown University.

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Among other key goals, the government will move to buy only hybrids, plug-ins and other advanced technology vehicles for its vast fleet of 600,000 vehicles by 2015.

“Presidents and politicians of every stripe have promised energy independence but that promise has so far gone unmet,” the president noted.  “That has to change. We cannot keep going from shock to trance on the issue of energy security, rushing to propose action when gas prices rise, then hitting the snooze button when they fall again,” he said.

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