Obama auto task force shifts to automaker owner


Posted on 15th July 2009 by gjohnson in Uncategorized

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I applaud the government intervention to save the U.S. auto industry. Compared to the money that was spent on saving Wallstreet, this effort to preserve the heart of the American industrial power and American Union jobs, is the good fight. Yet, one thing that cannot get lost in this shuffle to remake the auto industry is the progress that has been made on auto safety. Cars are safer than they were a generation ago. But just because the government is the principal shareholder in GM, meaning “we” are the principal shareholder in GM, doesn’t mean that the commitment to making cars safer should be a lower priority.

If you make a product, you must make it safe. If you don’t the tort law should hold you accountable for that failure. If the failure is outrageous, then you should also be punished.

I do not believe that the Federal Government being shareholders in a company means it can’t be run as efficiently. But the only way to make any company truly profitable is to makes its products better, which means safer, too.

Attorney Gordon Johnson

Date: 7/15/2009 4:01 PM

KEN THOMAS,Associated Press Writers
STEPHEN MANNING,Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON (AP) — When it brokered the restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors, President Barack Obama’s auto task force repeatedly pledged that it would steer clear of running a car company.

But with both companies exiting bankruptcy with the federal government as a major shareholder, that promise will be put to the test as the task force shifts roles from negotiator to owner.

The government could face a number of pitfalls: It could be tempted to insert itself into the day-to-day operations or sway management if auto sales continue to slide and carmakers’ financial woes continue. Lawmakers may try to use the government’s ownership as a way to push their own interests, such as making more fuel efficient cars. And the administration will need to sell its stake as quickly as possible.

“I take them at their word that they don’t want to run an auto company, the question is whether they will get dragged into it,” said Martin Zimmerman, a University of Michigan business professor who studies the auto industry. “There is a significant chance that will happen.”

Appointed by Obama in February, the task force includes representatives of cabinet members and economic advisers. It is officially headed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, the director of the National Economic Council. But much of the work was overseen by two senior advisers, Steven Rattner and Ron Bloom. Rattner stepped down last week, leaving Bloom as the leader.

Wielding power in public companies once thought unimaginable, the government panel’s efforts laid the groundwork for quick bankruptcies that helped Chrysler and GM emerge with smaller debt loads, reduced work forces and streamlined brands and dealer networks.

In the process, roughly $65 billion in government loans and aid was sunk into the two companies. Under the restructuring plans, the government now owns about 8 percent of Chrysler and 61 percent of GM.

Rattner stressed again last week that the task force plans to take a hands-off approach, saying that it wasn’t interested in “picking colors of cars.” But he noted that with such a large financial interest, the government would take a role similar to a large institutional investor.

“We have fiduciary responsibilities to the taxpayers to ensure that investment is well looked after. We will interact with GM, its management and board,” Rattner said.

Both companies face a brutal car market and numerous competitors seeking buyers in a depleted market. Auto companies are on pace to sell about 9.7 million vehicles in the U.S. this year compared with sales of more than 16 million vehicles in 2007. If the bleak conditions persist, it could increase pressure on the government to play a more active role.

Some supporters of the auto industry expect the task force to maintain its arms-length distance, crediting it with giving the two companies new life without inserting itself too much into the way Chrysler and GM conduct their business.

“They have the job to improve the foundations for restructuring without making decisions that require expertise about how you make a car,” said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. “That’s the difference. How you manage is different than how you make a car.”

But critics worry that the task force has wielded too much influence and may do so again.

The plight of hundreds of shuttered auto dealers offers a window into the pressures the administration could face. GM and Chrysler are closing nearly 3,000 dealerships, moves supported by the administration. Key lawmakers including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., oppose the action, saying it evades state franchise laws and will lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

“This whole notion is that some brainiac down at the task force came up with the idea that Toyota sells a lot of cars and they have less dealers and therefore we should make GM and Chrysler look like Toyota. It’s stupid,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio.

The White House said Wednesday it opposed the attempts to restore the GM and Chrysler franchise agreements.

Gerald Meyers, former chairman of American Motors Corp., said the temptation to meddle with the type of cars the companies make, where factories are located, and who runs the automakers, may be too great for the Obama administration and Congress to resist.

“It isn’t in the DNA of the government to stay out,” he said.

For example, House Republicans have questioned GM CEO Fritz Henderson about the company’s decision to maintain a parts distribution center in the district of Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Frank had urged Henderson to keep the facility open. And the administration’s firing of GM CEO Rick Wagoner also looms large.

Administration officials said they want to dispose of the government’s ownership interests as soon as practicable. While the U.S. stake is much smaller in Chrysler — the company is now aligned with Italian automaker Fiat — there will be intense scrutiny on the government’s share of GM.

GM is expected to conduct in initial public offering in 2010 and its shares would need to grow in value for the government to break-even or make money.

“We are not trying to be Warren Buffett here. We are not trying to squeeze every last dollar out,” Rattner said before his departure. “We do want to do well for the taxpayers but the most important thing is to get the government out of the car business.”

The Congressional Budget Office has provided a pessimistic outlook for a full refund, estimating last month that only about $15 billion of the initial $55 billion to GM, Chrysler, its financing arms and suppliers would be repaid. The analysis did not include the $30 billion GM received to help it navigate bankruptcy.

Also unclear is how long the task force will continue to exist. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., want it to tackle lingering problems of other segments of the auto sector, such as extending loans to auto parts suppliers that are struggling as GM and Chrysler cut back.

Rattner said that the task force will “inevitably get smaller” as it shifts to monitoring the federal government’s investment in Chrysler and GM.

Bloom was an adviser for the United Steelworkers union before coming to Washington, helping guide it through a similar restructuring of the steel industry. His former boss, union vice president Tom Conway, said he has a firm grasp of manufacturing issues. But he wondered how long Bloom would stay with the task force, especially n ow that most of the difficult negotiating is over.

“You get this thing done and signed off on, you get a new management team in there and you move on,” he said of restructuring deals.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Church bus crash kills 1 in Miss.; 23 injured


Posted on 13th July 2009 by gjohnson in Uncategorized

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It is an old advertising slogan “so much is riding on your tires.” The below story of a Mississippi fatal bus crash proves that point.

We have often blogged on this topic, but buses are not just tragic for the death that flows from them, but also the high probability of brain injury in such wrecks. No seat belts, no airbags, none of the safety engineering that has reduced the risk of brain injury so dramatically in passenger cars. We pray that those attending the injured do more than push pain killers and look for the obvious injury, but also ask probing questions of memory and cognitive function, so that any subtle brain injury is identified.

Attorney Gordon Johnson

Date: 7/12/2009 7:27 PM

MERIDIAN, Miss. (AP) — A bus carrying a church youth group from Louisiana to Georgia flipped Sunday on Interstate 20 in Mississippi, killing one person and injuring 23 others, a coroner said.

The bus, from First Baptist Church in Shreveport, La., rolled three times around 10:20 a.m. near Meridian and trapped at least two people underneath, Lauderdale County Coroner Clayton Cobler III said.

“It had a blowout,” Cobler said.

At least two passengers were trapped underneath the bus. A group of National Guard soldiers was on the highway at the time and helped extricate the injured.

“The National Guardsmen actually picked the bus up off the two people and got them out,” Cobler said.

An 18-year-old male was pronounced dead at a hospital, Cobler said. His name was not released.

Three people were airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, including one with severe head injuries, while the others were being treated at three hospitals in Meridian, the coroner said.

Cobler said injuries ranged from severe pelvic, back, and chest injuries to scrapes and scratches.

An official at Regency Hospital of Meridian said six people were taken there and another official at Rush Foundation Hospital said 13 people were being treated there, but neither would release the conditions of the crash victims.

Church officials told The Shreveport Times newspaper that the bus was headed to a weeklong youth event near Atlanta called “Passport.”

Phone messages left with the Mississippi Highway Patrol and Birmingham, Ala.-based Passport Inc. were not immediately returned.

The congregation learned of the accident shortly before Sunday morning worship and used the occasion to rally together in prayer.

“Our congregation is leaning on our faith and confidence in God,” First Baptist senior pastor Greg Hunt said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Researchers study ‘personality traits’ of cars


Posted on 6th July 2009 by gjohnson in Uncategorized

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Just a reminder, if you replace only two of the tires on your car, the new tires go on the back.

Attorney Gordon Johnson

BILL KACZOR,Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The butterfly decals on the front bumper, flowers in the dashboard vase and lime-green paint job only confirmed Dennis Slice’s perception of a Volkswagen Beetle parked in a lot at Florida State University.

Slice, a shape analysis researcher, said the narrow body, wide-eyed circular headlights, tall windshield and curve of the bug’s hood match the facial features of a smiling woman or child.

“This is the classic cute car — not dominant, not aggressive,” said Slice, an associate professor of scientific computing at FSU. “I don’t think anyone could be mean to someone else in a Volkswagen Beetle.”

Slice and fellow researchers at Austria’s Vienna University, where he’s a guest professor, are exploring the widely held belief that cars project personalities because they look like human faces when viewed head-on.

Cartoonists, for instance, long have drawn anthropomorphic cars with toothy grills that grinned or frowned and headlights that winked or blinked. The creators of the recent animated film “Cars,” though, used windshields for eyes. They were afraid headlight peepers would have given racer Lightning McQueen and other denizens of Radiator Springs a snakelike appearance.

Three cars parked near the Beetle offer examples of the opposite end of the personality spectrum. A Mitsubishi Eclipse, Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger each practically ooze testosterone.

Their low, wide stances, long hoods, gaping grills and relatively narrow headlights give each of these sporty models a look that’s consistent with the facial features of an adult male, Slice said. Each projects a mature, dominant, aggressive and powerful personality.

“This is a car that’s ready to take care of business,” he said standing in front of the Eclipse. “You don’t want to mess with this car.”

Slice and his Vienna colleagues hope their work one day may help designers determine what parts of a car, such as the headlights, grill or windshield, they can change — and how — to project traits that make cars more appealing to different kinds of customers.

They’re taking the emerging field of shape analysis, or morphometrics, in a new direction. Most other applications have been biological or medical. For example, researchers are trying to determine if bone shapes can be used to help identify the age, gender and race of unknown human remains and how variations in facial features affect the fit and function of respirators.

The idea of seeing faces in inanimate objects is part of a survival instinct that goes back to prehistoric times, Slice said.

Facial features offering clues about a person’s sex, age, emotions and intentions helped early humans “know whether the guy that just stepped out of the bushes is going to take your head back for a trophy or invite you to lunch,” Slice said.

Those identifications are so important that people also tend to see faces even where they don’t exist.

“If you get it wrong and you see a face in a cloud or a stone or a mountain or some burnt toast then you might be frightened a little bit, but it’s no real cost to you,” Slice said. “But if you should ever miss a face and that person wants your head, then that’s a serious omission.”

Slice said future research may look at whether cars’ personalities relate to drivers’ habits and interactions.

“Possibilities are if you see an aggressive car in your rear view mirror you may be more like to pull over and yield to it,” he said. “By the same token, if you see a submissive or more immature car trying to get into traffic you may be more likely to yield to it and help the innocent little car get into traffic.”

Another question is whether drivers have the same personalities as their cars.

Slice got a bit of anecdotal evidence in the parking lot from Gwen Oliver, a custodial supervisor at Florida State, after telling her that her black Eclipse is dominant, aggressive, powerful and “ready to take care of business.”

“I am. Everything you said, I’m like that,” Oliver told him after she briskly walked over to see why he was interested in her car. “I’m aggressive, I’m straightforward and I’m outgoing and I believe in getting the job done.”


Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.