Jake Neher joins Automotive News as audio producer

DETROIT — Jake Neher has joined the Automotive News multimedia team as coordinating producer for audio.

Neher, 34, has worked in public radio for the past 12 years. Most recently, he was senior editor for WDET’s “Detroit Today With Stephen Henderson” and co-host of its popular Michigan politics podcast, “MichMash.”

A Michigander for most of his life, Neher has also spent time reporting in Arctic Alaska and New York City.

Neher earned a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University and a master’s from Fordham University.

MEMA presses Congress to pass competition bill

WASHINGTON — As the auto industry endures global supply chain disruptions, including a semiconductor shortage that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, one trade association is hoping to avoid déjà vu.

“Right now, our No. 1 public policy issue is to get passage of the competition bill that is making its way through Congress,” said Ann Wilson, senior vice president of government affairs at the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, which represents original equipment and aftermarket automotive parts suppliers in the U.S.

Congress this month held its first meeting of the conference committee, which is tasked with negotiating a final competitiveness bill approved by both chambers. The Senate passed its version of the bill in June 2021, followed by the House passing a similar bill in February. Major focuses of both bills are improving U.S. competitiveness with China and boosting semiconductor manufacturing.

Both versions also include $52 billion to strengthen domestic semiconductor production and research — a key provision supported by major industry groups, including MEMA.

The association is pressing Congress to pass the bipartisan innovation and competition bill by July 4.

“That’s not the only thing that we talk to members of Congress about,” she said, “but it is by far the most important thing to us to pass this year.”

Wilson, 67, sat down with Reporter Audrey LaForest at MEMA’s Washington office to discuss the association’s recent advocacy efforts. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: MEMA’s first monthlong “Spring into Advocacy” event is underway. You mentioned the competition bill. What else are you discussing?

A: The impact the supply chain crisis has had on the whole industry. One of the things that gets lost in the discussions is the impact that this has had on some of our smaller suppliers, the Tier 2s and Tier 3s. When an OEM is forced to reduce production — whether they slow down production or they close a shift — and then the Tier 1s make changes to their own production schedules, what that does to the Tier 2s and Tier 3s is they have to do the same, but they don’t usually have as much room to pivot. At the same time, when production ramps back up, they have to be ready to jump-start that production, and this has added an immense amount of strain to these smaller suppliers.

What has been an “advocacy win” during the Biden administration? Any concerns?

There are a lot of things the Biden administration is doing well. They have really tried to be the leader on pushing for the CHIPS [Act] funding. [Commerce Secretary Gina] Raimondo, particularly, has been really good about working with our members and trying to understand how they can support it, and the White House has been really good about doing the same thing. They understand what’s going on at the ports. They understand the dilemma that this is putting domestic manufacturing in altogether. That’s been a really strong point of our work with the administration. We’re continuing to work with them on the issue of work force for the future and how we retrain and upskill workers for this transition that we are all going through. That’s a very difficult issue because a lot of that training happens at the local level.

Our members are very interested to see how the Biden administration works on their view toward zero-emission vehicles. As we move to 2030, we are hopeful that they allow a range of technologies to be considered zero-emission and don’t just focus on battery-electric vehicles.

I do think there are more conversations that we need to have, or we would welcome having, with the Biden administration on trade. Our members are committed to reshoring and nearshoring jobs, manufacturing, into the U.S. and in North America generally. But there are going to be some components that are not going to be made in the U.S. We’d like to see a conversation where we talk about how we improve U.S. jobs at the same time as how do we improve our ability to compete internationally.

What about the upcoming midterm election and the industry’s electrification plans?

Many of our members understand a couple of things; one is the investments that the vehicle manufacturers are making for electrification. This is a different conversation than it was four or five years ago, and the real pressure that’s on them to come up with plans, for those plans to be significant and for those plans to be successful. If the federal government decided to take a different tack, I think that they will find that the business community is saying, “We are making investments that we need to make sure that we see the end of.” We might see a change in the curve, but I don’t think we would see a reversal of the whole plan.

Has MEMA spoken to Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat?

We talk to Sen. Manchin’s office all the time. I think people would be surprised with the number of things that we agree on. We did not take a position on the EV tax credits that were in Build Back Better. We have members who have customers that are union facilities. We have members who have customers that are not union facilities. As we move forward, part of the challenges are going to be where do we get the rare earths and the raw materials that are going to be necessary? We’re going to have to embrace Canada and other places to be able to do this, and I think we want to make sure that we’re working with as many of our partners as possible moving forward, and that may necessitate taking another look at that EV tax credit, but as a trade association, we have not taken a position on it.

Vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards have gotten stricter under Biden. How does that affect your members?

We’ve been fairly supportive of the pre-2026 standards and the changes that the Biden administration made. I think now, as we look at 2027 and forward, is really where some difficult new challenges and road maps need to be laid out. Our members on the light-vehicle side, particularly, have really expressed a desire for the Biden administration, or for any administration, to allow for a range of technologies to help with some of these standards.

The other thing is what do we do to get the supplier industry ready to make this pivot? What do you do to make sure that suppliers who are manufacturing something for the internal combustion engine have a plan for continuing manufacturing? I think what you see from the largest suppliers is they are, in many ways, ready to make a transition. The question is how fast? And if there are those underlying investments from the federal government for charging stations and manufacturing and retooling, you’ll see a lot of the largest suppliers ready to work with their customers to make this leap. But it’s bringing that whole supply chain along. If we haven’t learned anything over the last few years, we need to learn that the fragility of a supply base is real — whether it’s baby formula, wire harnesses in Europe, semiconductors — and we need to think about the consequences of this. Just like we don’t want to leave any consumers behind, we don’t want to leave work force behind either.

Auction set for Sean Connery’s Aston Martin DB5, sans ejector seat

There’s no ejector seat, oil slick maker or machine gun, but the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery bought for himself more than a half-century after driving one as James Bond in Goldfinger is up for sale.

The actor bought the DB5 at the suggestion of his children in 2018, two years before he died at age 90. It’s the only one he ever personally owned, and auction company Broad Arrow Group expects it to sell for $1.4 million to $1.8 million.

“Dad used to talk about owning his own DB5, for no other reason than he loved the car,” son Jason Connery said in a statement from Broad Arrow. “He did tell me that driving the movie cars, all laden down with the gadgets, especially the machine guns in the front, made the car really front heavy and turning at slow speed was a Herculean task, so driving without gadgets was a joy! He loved how well balanced it was. Dad also said he would have kept the ejector seat. I didn’t ask who for.”

After a yearlong search, Sean Connery found a black 1964 DB5 in near-perfect condition. The car still has little evidence of being sat in beyond some creases in the seat leather, according to Barney Ruprecht, an Aston Martin specialist with Broad Arrow who helped Connery locate it. Connery had the vehicle painted Snow Shadow Gray to match the Bond car in Goldfinger.

Connery kept the car at his home in Switzerland and had a photo of it on his desk.

“Unfortunately as he got older, traveling, especially to Europe [became difficult], and then COVID hit,” Jason Connery told CNN. “You know, unfortunately, he never really got to enjoy the car that he’d bought.”

The car will be part of Broad Arrow’s August auction in Monterey, Calif., with most of the proceeds going to the Sean Connery Philanthropy Fund.

American Axle to explore sale of company, report says

Supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. is exploring a potential sale, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg.

The company has hired an adviser to help with the process, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing private information. A leveraged buyout through a private equity firm is a likely option, one person said. No decision has been made and the company could decide to stand pat.

American Axle didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Its shares jumped 11.4 percent to $7.52 in extended trading late Friday following Bloomberg’s report. The stock had fallen 28 percent this year through Friday’s close, compared with an 18 percent drop for the S&P 500 index.

The manufacturer has been a stalwart supplier of axles and drivetrain components to automakers. The company faces challenges to maintain revenue as key customers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors electrify their vehicles and switch to different kinds of drivetrain components.

American Axle hasn’t yet been able to establish a key relationship in EVs the way it has with the GM large truck and Stellantis’ Ram HD platforms, according to Dan Levy, an analyst at Credit Suisse, in a May 20 research note.

The company carried net debt of $2.67 billion at the end of March, or about 3.6 times earnings, which could be a hurdle to a sale. But Levy projects the company will cut that ratio by generating $400 million in cash in 2023.

American Axle was created in 1994 when a group of investors including former Chrysler Corp. manufacturing chief Richard E. Dauch, industrialists Mort Harris and Ray Park and former Volkswagen executive James McClernon bought aging powertrain plants from General Motors. The company went public in 1999.

American Axle is now led by CEO David Dauch, son of the company’s co-founder.

Nexteer, Tactile Mobility partner to help cars detect road conditions

A new software stack developed by steering supplier Nexteer Automotive and Israeli tech startup Tactile Mobility allows vehicles to get a better “feel of the road” in hazardous conditions — and even to detect the health of a tire.

The software is integrated into a vehicle’s steering system to instantly detect when the tires have contacted an icy patch of road highway. The vehicle then converts road surface information into data that the vehicle “interprets and assigns to various road-condition scenarios,” according to the companies.

Detecting a change in conditions, the software could instruct an adaptive cruise control system to increase the distance between the vehicle and the one in front of it, according to the companies.

“We are providing the car the ability to sense the road itself,” Shahar Bin-Nun, CEO of Tactile Mobility, told Automotive News. “It’s all about understanding the micro-slips and the dynamics between the surface and the car and deriving all of this information.”

The software has potential use in advanced driver-assistance systems as well as future autonomous vehicles as they move with less human-driver input.

The system has drawn interest from automakers because it is based entirely on software, said Joe Klesing, Nexteer’s product line executive for software.

“We’re not adding any additional hardware or anything like that,” he said. “That’s attractive for OEMs because there aren’t additional hardware costs, and it can work within the existing electronics platforms they have.”

The virtual sensors and algorithms developed by Tactile Mobility can be integrated into the electric power steering systems and software developed by Nexteer, meaning no additional parts or physical sensors are required.

The innovation comes about a year after Nexteer invested in Tactile Mobility, an Israeli startup founded in 2012. The company’s software, which is in use on BMW production models, collects data from built-in vehicle sensors on everything from gear position to wheel angle from vehicles’ built-in sensors.

The new development gives Nexteer the ability to introduce new features to help a driver make decisions when approaching a hazardous stretch of a roadway, Klesing said.

“It can help us build apps to [help] the driver do the right thing before hitting those icy spots,” he said. “We keep the driver safer while preventing an information overload.”

Nexteer said the software was developed through machine learning by identifying patterns in road surface and tire detection data from more than 20 million miles of driving.

“As the system gets in production and data is collected and available, our customers are getting more ideas about what you can do and what services and functions you can offer,” he said.

Klesing and Bin-Nun both touted the system’s ability to assist with autonomous-driving functions in the future. “Autonomous vehicles rely on vision, and rightfully so. But it’s simply not enough,” Bin-Nun said. “For autonomous vehicles, we believe it’s a must-have.”

The system also monitors tires for tread depth and other issues, alerting the driver when it’s time for a replacement.

Klesing said Nexteer and Tactile Mobility have also drawn interest from municipal governments that see the availability of real-time road data helping them with road maintenance and salting operations.

“There’s a benefit here,” Klesing said, “beyond just the driver and other drivers on the road.”

Ford ordered to pay $7 million in fatal W.Va. crash involving 2014 Mustang

A West Virginia jury ruled Tuesday that Ford Motor Co. must pay $7 million to the family of a 19-year-old woman who was killed in a 2016 accident involving her Ford Mustang.

According to the suit, a pickup struck the 2014 Mustang, which subsequently caught fire, and Breanna Bumgarner was ultimately killed.

The lawsuit, filed in February 2018 in Charleston, W.Va., alleged the Mustang was “defectively designed thus creating an unreasonable propensity to ignite into flames under normal and foreseeable operating conditions.”

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the jury ruled Ford was 99 percent at fault for Bumgarner’s death because the Mustang did not reasonably prevent leakage from the brake fluid reservoir during the crash. The jury reserved the remaining 1 percent of fault for the driver who struck the Mustang.

Mike Andrews, an attorney representing Bumgarner’s family, wrote in an email to Automotive News that Ford knowingly hid important safety information about the 2005-14 Mustang.

“These defects are symptoms of the larger issue: the 2005-2014 Mustang is not crashworthy and was not designed to properly protect occupants or protect against known fire hazards,” Andrews wrote.

Ford spokesperson Ian Thibodeau wrote in an email that the company was considering its options.

“While our sympathies go out to Ms. Bumgarner’s family and we respect the jury’s decision, we do not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence,” Thibodeau wrote. “We will review options for appeal.”