Stabenow on Detroit auto show: ‘The comeback is real’

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A bipartisan delegation of House and Senate members toured the Detroit auto show Monday morning, marveling at the enthusiasm for the industry’s future, compared with five or six years ago.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, climbs inside a bright orange Chevrolet Bolt while touring the Detroit Auto Show on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016.

“If you were here in 2008, you could have shot a cannon through this place and not hit a soul,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, at the first of two press preview days.

“But we have so turned this state around. It is so different than it used to be, and it’s so exciting to see.”

Bishop visited various automaker exhibits along with Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak; David Trott, R-Birmingham; and Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, chatting with industry executives and employees.

Separately, Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township toured the show, joined by Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Jay Williams, who leads the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“For the first time in my life, I can say I’m a car girl and proud of it. I used to have to be defensive,” said Dingell, who previously worked for GM for 30 years.

“For those of us who have been around, you can see the excitement is back. You can see the investment in these displays. What this car show shows is the result of hard work and teamwork. ... It shows that Detroit and Michigan are still in the driver’s seat.”

Members of both parties welcomed the news that President Barack Obama will visit the show Jan. 20, when he’s expected to highlight the more than 640,000 auto-industry jobs created since the $85 billion bailout, as well as the record sales of nearly 17.5 million vehicles in 2015.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, gets behind the wheel of the new Corvette while touring the Detroit Auto Show on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016.

“It’s great that he’s coming. I suspect the president’s coming here shopping for a car. He’s going to need one pretty soon,” Trott joked.

Trott also noted the efforts to support the flailing auto industry began under President George W. Bush in 2008 and were later expanded by Obama.

“At the end of the day, it was a lot of hard work by a lot of people at the automotive companies that made it happen.”

Huizenga is concerned about reports from auto suppliers with a greater market share from foreign automakers, versus domestic.

“I imagine the president’s going to discuss and tout the bailout. We’re glad the industry was able to rebound,” Huizenga said.

“My goal is to make sure we don’t return to that environment, and that’s incumbent both on the manufacturers, as well as government and the influence that we have on the overall economy.”

Levin said it shouldn’t be forgotten that some elected officials wanted to give up on the auto manufacturing in Michigan and in the U.S.

“If anybody doubts whether we were right to save the auto industry, just come here,” Levin said.

Lawrence said Obama had the vision and leadership to invest in the industry and not let it fail. “As a result, look at how vibrant we’ve come, and all the loans have been paid back. Detroit has come back to life,” she said.

Added Stabenow: “There was a point when we walked through in 2008, 2009 when I wanted to jump off the top of the building. It was very depressing. It was very scary. But people did what we do in Michigan — put our heads down, worked hard, innovated and stuck with it. The comeback is real.”

Williams, who previously was executive director of the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, highlighted the industry changes over five years in vehicle design, technological advances and fuel efficiency that have contributed to the comeback.

Obama is coming to Detroit “certainly to honor and recognize what we’ve accomplished as a country, but the president also wants to be clear that there’s work to be done,” Williams said.

“How do we continue to position the economy and U.S. manufacturing so that these economic opportunities exist for future generations?”

Peters was particularly interested in advances in new vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology in which “talking” cars communicate with one another and with highway infrastructure to give advance warning to motorists of impending road conditions and hazards.

“In the next few years, we’re likely to see these technologies lead to the elimination of as many as 80 percent of crashes,” Peters said. “We’re seeing some of that technology at the show to day, and we’ll see even more in years to come.”

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