CAS: Spending Time with GM’s Chairman, Robert Lutz

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Before we jump into anything about GM, we think it’s important first to put up the bits of information we culled from the brief conversation we got in with Vice Chairman of Product Development and Chairman of GM North America, Robert Lutz, who is maybe the nicest guy we’ve ever met, and an auto industry legend to boot, with a hand in developing things like the Pontiac GTO, the weird Plymouth Prowler, and our favorite car of all time, the BMW 2002. And instead of working in his comments within a post, we figured we’d let them sit by themselves, directly from the notes we took:

On blogging: Lutz blogs himself at the Fastlane site. He says it was essential that the company branch out in that respect, with a blog, and that many of the auto makers are still hesitant about letting themselves get that close to the consumer. In his role on the blog, he says he’s the person who says the things the company can’t directly come out and say for fear of slander or the like, but he can because it’s a person entry. He is edited on the site, however, and says that he writes posts, then sends it to their PR people to post, “so they can change ‘lacks understanding’ from ‘they’re complete idiots.’


On marketing:Part of the reason they’re doing things like trying to get everyone involved in blogs because he feels like it’s nearly impossible to find a set-solution to reach customers. He referenced the Super Bowl saying that it’s the only time in the whole year where at least they definitely know people are watching the commercials they’ve made. Though of the “Suicidal Robot” GM ad, he says, “I wish it had ended a little better, instead of the suicide attempt. But I don’t have anything to do with those spots.”

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On his design experience: “I drew cars pretty well,” Lutz said. “My dad came in when I was a kid and asked ‘How are your studies?’ and I said, ‘Not so well, so I’m going to design cars for a living.” Unfortunately, he didn’t draw well enough, but still had that passion, so he instead became responsible for overseeing designer’s projects. Says when you draw a car a 3/4 perspective, you spend hours on it and your brain tricks you’ve got everything correct on the first pass. But if you hold it up to a mirror, you can see exactly where you got things wrong. He likes to be that mirror for his designers. Tells his staff to “push something so hard until it scares you — from there we can scale back.”

On GM’s design history: In the ’50s and ’60s, auto designers ran the show. They were spending tons of money building new cars, but they had a 50% market share, so they were taking in tons and tons of money, so nobody could control the designers. Once they retired, the administrators at the company said “Well, let’s not that happen again,” and that’s why GM has lagged behind. Now that he’s come back out of retirement to lead the company, he wants design to be the number one priority. “My role is to empower our designers.” And regarding the Volt, the plug-in electric car Chevy is building that could potentially be the savior of GM, which we’ll cover shortly, “Years ago, we would never have been allowed to make the Volt.”

On the Volt: The consumer market is schizophrenic, so they have to sell everything from the big SUVs to the hybrids, but that eventually must change. “Other than the a few nuts out in California who bought the EV1 back when it came out, nobody really cared about the role cars played on the environment.” They are a for-profit company, so they must make money, but now is different, he says, because the market is more aware and driven by that fear that oil is running out and that cars are damaging the environment, and so that makes it easier to introduce a concept like the Volt and other hybrids.

Finally, on the Hummer: It will gradually get smaller and smaller as the market dictates until, eventually, there’s only one size. Then, after that, you might not be able to tell the difference between it and a sedan.