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SMC Speaker Report: Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press

President Chris Walsh and Phoebe Wall Howard

Our luncheon speaker for our very well-attended and successful 60th Anniversary Celebration on September 10th was Phoebe Wall Howard, the Detroit Free Press automotive writer.

Phoebe is a sixth-generation Detroiter whose family arrived in Detroit in 1850. They ran a small painting business in Corktown. She was the first in her family to grow up in Grosse Pointe. Phoebe went to Grosse Pointe South where she worked for the Tower newspaper. She earned a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia and has worked in the Midwest, South and California covering business, politics, government regulation and labor negotiations. She returned to Detroit to cover the auto industry for the Detroit Free Press in 2017. Phoebe has a background in magazine, newspaper, radio and TV news with an expertise in political polling and social media. Today, Phoebe covers the automotive industry for the Detroit Free Press with a focus on Ford Motor and industry news for investors.

Phoebe reported to us that the United Auto Workers contract expires at midnight on September 14th, and GM is on alert for a possible strike. The UAW represents about 150,000 autoworkers but has another 250,000 members in other industries, such as higher education, aerospace and agriculture. She also mentioned that the Detroit Auto Show will be held in June of 2020 instead of January and the industry is watching how the new date will be received and whether the German companies will attend. 

Phoebe discussed developments in electric cars and autonomous vehicles. She told us the real money in selling cars is being made by aggregating and selling the data that is collected as car buyers’ trips are being tracked. The data is reported anonymously so no one will be able to tell where you drive. She mentioned that Ford’s partnership with Volkswagen is a plus for Ford since Volkswagen is now the largest car company in the world. However, she reported that Moody’s downgraded Ford debt to junk status this morning.

Phoebe took numerous questions on topics such as China, which is now the largest automotive market in the world and is increasing its manufacture of electric vehicles. Autonomous vehicles are the future, but a lack of consistent regulations is slowing their rollout in the US. High capital investment is required and interesting players are surfacing to help fund this development. The auto industry is in a challenging environment and auto makers are making changes as they see the need. Despite efforts by the Trump administration to roll them back, air quality concerns and California’s mileage standards, which impact a third of all cars sold in the US, are driving an increase in the number of hybrid or all-electric vehicles offered by auto makers. Ford is laying off employees and General Motors is talking about closing more plants. Settling The UAW contract will have a big impact.

Thank you Phoebe, for your report on the current state of the auto industry and what to expect in the future.

Reported by George Arsenault and David Morrow

Photos by George McMullen

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