Wednesday, August 19, 2009

GM's Design Lab Blog

One of the knocks against the domestic auto industry is how out of touch the designers and product planners are with the buying public. Can we say Pontiac Aztek, anyone? It was a monument to design by committee - too ugly and expensive for it's target demographic. The whole exercise exposed the weakness in depending on focus groups.

Not that this is the only weakness in GM's armor - quality of the product, the product being several years behind the competitors' curve, and poor management leap to the mind immediately if not before. But, it would surely help if the designers weren't lost in Chris Bangle La La Land (It ain't just GM that has this problem...).

So, perhaps, just maybe, the idea that GM has just opened up it's design studios to the public in the form of a blog has at least warmed me up to the possibility of success for the "New GM." It's called The Lab. The designers are letting us see some of their works in progress, and are soliciting comments on same. At the moment, there are two projects that are displayed - the Bare Necessity Car and the Bare Necessity Truck. Both are presented as vehicles stripped to their basics:
We knew from our research that people wanted an extremely efficient vehicle that was also low-cost and green. But what was really eye-opening to me was that people seemed to desire extreme efficiency even if it meant making small sacrifices/trade-offs. The idea of a back-to-basics, bare-necessity approach to designing a vehicle made sense. So I had two questions:

How can we design an optimally efficient vehicle? I mean really, what does that even mean?


What are people willing to trade off for efficiency’s sake?

One answer would come in the form of our first “big idea”: Design a car with the lowest cost per mile of any four-seater on the road!

So if people are willing to make some trade-offs for efficiency, maybe then the first trade-off would need to be size. It would need be a very small car – having said that, it would need to be really flexible in terms of space.

The question of making trade-offs is difficult. “Bare necessity” in vehicle terms has a unique meaning to different people. The idea of offering people only what they need and nothing more became an important focus. Ok, but it can’t feel cheap or limiting, it has to be flawlessly executed. As designers, we had to think in terms of designing in the ability to eliminate non-critical features, based on unique customer needs. We were calling this the “Basic Plus Approach.” This approach would help us deal with the conundrum of one man’s crap being another man’s essential.

Beyond the basic plus approach and functional flexibility we needed to design a vehicle that was simple with minimal parts and sustainable materials. That’s what we began to explore.

What is Bare Necessity to you? What is essential in your vehicle?

So, here are external views of the concepts they are considering:

Composite outer skins, minimal "luxury" (read heavy) options, various powerplants - all are up for discussion. The comments are illuminating - there are the usual suspects who gripe that the current offerings are overweight and over optioned, and "If you sold something without all that stuff I'd buy it" statements. Of course, any dealer will tell you people say that all the time, but when it comes to actually purchasing said "stripper," they buy the one with the options - leaving the bare boned loner on the lot for a super clearance sale at a loss. Some of the commenters want complete option customization - which runs counter to the option package strategy - where options are distilled into a few "packages" to save manufacturing costs. I don't see how having individual options - like it used to be - would save costs. But, the design staff is listening.

This is their Bare Necessity Truck concept - notably furthering the rear bulkhead concept introduced with the Avalanche. Instead of a flat partition, the bulkhead is reversable so that either the bed has more room, or the cab has the room. Easily removable rear seats would be part of the setup. One thing some commenters suggest is using a small diesel for power - something that really hasn't been marketed here in the States. If it's a good motor, durability and low end torque would be the advantages - and most who desire a small diesel look to durability as their main concern. Kinda flies in the corporate idea of planned obsolescence for more sales, but GM is supposedly trying to be "green" here. Maybe it'll come to pass.

Of course, neither vehicle starts my motor. I need a full size truck, preferably four wheel drive, for reasons previously elaborated. The roads out here eat small cars for lunch. Somehow, I don't see this truck with a Deweze flatbed and bale fork installed for the discriminating farmer/stockman. I doubt it would be able to pull a fifth wheel trailer, or much of a trailer at all.

No, these vehicles are aimed right at the heart of urbanites. I have my doubts that GM will convince a soccer mom in her Suburban that this little truckster will be as safe and stylish as her current ride, or the urban off road poseur with the H3 Hummer that this is as capable looking and piss off the hippies quite like their present choice. The car has to compete against the admittedly better constructed Japanese offerings, and the Koreans are closing that gap. Korean manufacturers have pricing covered, even as the Chinese and Indians move in.

I'd have a lot more hope if GM wasn't saddled with the union labor costs, but alas, they didn't listen to me then. Or you, if you're part of the normal bunch around here. But the fact that at least an influential part of GM is listening brings some hope. I'm a GM guy at heart, so I'm rootin' for 'em.

After all, as GM goes, so goes the country. Right?


CGHill said...

" would need to be really flexible in terms of space."

Two words: "Honda Fit." Which is now in its second generation, so they've had time to get (most of) the bugs out.

What perplexes me is that today's compact truck is at least as big as yesterday's full-size truck. (Then again, Detroit doesn't own this issue: the current Honda Civic is bigger than the first few generations of Accords, and the first Civic would probably fit inside a Fit.)

And my hauling needs are modest, compared to some, perhaps compared to most.

Last time I went shopping for a new car, I'd decided on another Mazda 626, and the dealer had two of them left at the end of the model year, with the new ones yet to arrive. I took the one with fewer options: no sunroof, no alloy wheels. I did, however, have them tack on a cassette unit under the CD player/radio, for which they charged me a bundle. No matter. This was the only time I got a car optioned more or less the way I wanted.

Jeffro said...

Yeah, they're hardly reinventing the wheel. Sliding bulkheads and other gew gaws probably aren't the answer - perceived quality, value and durability would surely go further to sell vehicles. That takes time and actual results. I'm for hoping this is a sign of positive things to come, though.

Unknown said...

A small truck that gets 30 mpg. What a concept. To bad India with the Mahindra is going to win that race in the US. The Mahindra is not pretty but 30 mpg is, and I am buying one. I should have 200,000 miles on it by time GM builds one of these concepts.

Jeffro said...

Yeah, Government Motors is more than a bit off in their timing introducing salable new products. It doesn't appear to be improving.