Things Looking Up At The Detroit Auto Show

The US automobile industry's annual showcase — the North American International Auto Show — is drawing to close in Detroit. And attendance has been up from last year. The show comes amid signs of growth in the auto industry: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are expected to add some 28,000 more jobs to their operations this year. Host Michel Martin talks to NPR Business Reporter Sonari Glinton, who covers the auto industry and was at the show.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We'll continue with our Friday features in a moment. We'll ask why the pope has called for the governments of majority Muslim countries to better protect their Christian minorities. That's in Faith Matters and that's coming up.

But first, if you are anywhere near the Motor City, if you work in the auto industry or love cars and trucks, then you know that the North American International Auto Show is entering its final days. Forty new cars and trucks made their debut in Detroit this year. That's up from 27 new models last year and attendance is up, too. But we wondered what that says about the future of the auto industry.

So we've asked Detroit-based NPR business reporter Sonari Glinton to join us. He covers the auto industry and he's with us now. Welcome, Sonari, thanks for joining us.

SONARI GLINTON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, a piece in The Wall Street Journal reads: The city's 2009 car show seemed like a funeral with a few lonely looking cars scattered on tattered carpets and it symbolized a time when workers, managers, shareholders, bond holders and dealers were losing their jobs, pensions and investments and taxpayers were paying the price. So, kind of harsh. So, what was the atmosphere this year?

GLINTON: Well, it was completely different than that. The executives weren't, you know, bombastic and loud, as, you know, they might be. There was a sense of humility at the auto show, but you could see the money and the depth of products that were there. Every single major auto company showed up and they put out new products and that's different than past years.

MARTIN: Now, some auto workers picketed this year's auto show saying that the hiring still hasn't kept pace with what they think is appropriate and, you know, Ford announced it'll add 7,000 jobs over the next two years. General Motors says it will add 1,000 jobs. Does that put any kind of a dent in the overall jobs picture, given how many people have been laid off or put in restricted hours or reduced hours in the last couple of years?

GLINTON: There are tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs. And what we have to remember is that the number of cars that have been sold this year is extremely depressed over years past. I mean, there has been some comeback in the truck sector, but most of those trucks that were sold were sold as replacement trucks. There weren't people going out and buying new trucks.

The average American is just not buying a new automobile because they don't have the confidence in the economy. As soon as people start buying those automobiles, the automakers are ready to start adding on shifts and adding on workers.

MARTIN: I just want to play a clip here of Chrysler's CEO, Olivier Francois, making a speech there at the show. Here it is.

Mr. OLIVIER FRANCOIS (CEO, Chrysler): A new look. It's worth one shot or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip? You.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is he channeling Eminem? What's going on there?

GLINTON: He's channeling Eminem. And the music behind him is "Lose Yourself," Eminem's hit.

Last year, Chrysler had no new products at the auto show. This year, they had 16 completely redesigned or new products. And he's telling the story of how last year, when he left the auto show, he was driving in his 300 by himself and he was wondering, can this company make it another year without anymore products? And he heard "Lose Yourself" on the radio and that connected with him.

Now, it sounds kind of silly when you hear it right now, but in the auditorium, when you heard it, I mean, he was close to tears. Chrysler is definitely of the three American automakers, the one closest to the edge and it still has not seen a profit. It's still a distance away from selling the shares on the stock exchange. So it has a long way to go. But these 16 new cars show that it's come a long way since last year.

MARTIN: So there is some swagger coming back.

GLINTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. What about the other two, GM and Ford? What is their situation? What's their status?

GLINTON: Ford is the darling of Wall Street for now. It definitely was the star of the show in an interesting way. It had one of the few big product launches where, you know, they took out the largest auditorium. They had cars coming through the audience in ramps. They put out an electric car, they put out a hybrid. They really, across the spectrum, showed new cars and they showed not only just the new cars, but new concepts that looked toward the future.

MARTIN: And what about GM?

GLINTON: GM has, of course, the Chevy Vault, which is the talk of the auto show. And it is the comeback story. I mean, it has returned essentially to profitability, it has new cars, it is looking towards the future and it is a very different place than it was two years ago.

MARTIN: So, finally, Sonari, we've heard about the steak, now let's hear the sizzle. What was the hot car? Tell us what was fun.

GLINTON: Well, what was fun for me was the $289,000 Bentley. I mean, that was the fun thing. To see the luxury carmakers make a return, Bentley didn't have any new products last year, now it has three new cars. Porsche was not at the auto show last year and now it's back. It has battery-powered racing car. I mean, those were the cool things. But the real thing, actually, is sort of below the level, which is the car systems.

The coolest thing about what's coming now is that your car in the near future is going to be like a rolling iPhone, so that, you know, the technology that we're used to in our homes and in our offices is going to be inside your car. So you can say, oh, you and your family are going to go to Colonial Williamsburg over the summer. If you type it in on your computer at home, you'll be able to send the directions directly to your car and your car will tell you, oh, on the way, you know, there is this great antique shop because I know that you like going antiquing. That is sort of the exciting stuff that the systems inside your car are going to mirror the other appliances that you have around your life.

MARTIN: Sonari Glinton is NPR's Detroit-based business reporter. He follows the auto industry, among other responsibilities. And he joined us from member station WUOM Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. Sonari, thanks so much.

GLINTON: Thank you.

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