But industry experts say things have changed. The reforms Detroit undertook make it less prone to financial disaster. Car companies have closed plants, laid off workers and sold or closed entire brands. GM now has 12 U.S. assembly plants and 101,000 employees in North America. A decade ago, it had 22 plants and 202,000 employees.
"You literally can't do as many bad things because of the smaller workforce and the smaller portfolio of plants," said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The vulnerability to stupid things is not as great as it used to be."
Detroit is finally doing many things right. GM, Ford and Chrysler are all building vehicles like the Sonic that can be sold globally, saving billions that used to be spent developing cars for individual markets. Because they are no longer overproducing cars and trucks, they can command higher prices.
And they're no longer blindly chasing market share as they did in the early 2000s, when GM executives wore buttons that said "29" because their goal was to grab 29 percent of U.S. sales. It didn't work. GM currently is making money with about 18 percent of the market. U.S. auto sales rose 13 percent last year to 14.5 million, the best in five years.
"Market share is nice, but profits are essential," Cole said. "That's going to live with us for a long, long time."
Reuss, GM's North American president, said the company is less bureaucratic. Employees can make decisions without taking everything to the top.
"We have a lot of smart people here. If they're so afraid and paralyzed that every decision comes to me or someone else, it's not very productive," he said.
The government also is getting out of GM's business, which should help sales. Late last year, GM bought back 200 million of the government's shares. That leaves taxpayers holding 300 million shares, which the Treasury plans to sell by early 2014.
Detroit could still stumble. GM's inventory is high and its U.S. sales aren't keeping pace with growth in the overall market. The industry is so competitive that cars can quickly get stale if companies don't invest in them. Growth could be hindered by the lack of available engineering talent or a lack of parts suppliers, many of whom closed during the recession.
But for now, new Chevrolets keep coming off the assembly line at Orion.
As she turned back to her station, Ballard took stock of the progress: "I think we're rolling along like is expected of us."
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