Flybrian

GM's Design Drive Hits the Road

75 posts in this topic

GM's Design Drive Hits the Road
By refreshing its lineup with new interiors, the No. 1 carmaker aims to win over consumers with quality and fend off its rival for the top spot, Toyota
by Matt Vella
Link to Original Article @ BusinessWeek


Posted Image

The 2008 STS' revised, SLS-inspired interior?


Kate Zak, General Motors' director of global component strategy, stands under moody spotlights in front of three disembodied steering wheels, talking about the importance of a proper "handshake." The interactions in question—the tactile experience of hands on a gear shift, a windshield wiper stalk, or a steering wheel—are minute, and, it turns out, inextricably linked to drivers' impressions of a car's overall quality. "We've found that these handshake components—their feel, their sound, their actuation—really are for customers an indicator for the entire vehicle, windows of insight into the car," says Zak.

After inviting the small group of journalists with whom she's speaking to poke and prod the steering wheels behind her, she moves on to another set of dislocated auto components in a dim room punctuated by design displays swathed in contrapuntal light. The traveling salon is part of a GM (GM) campaign to put its designers—and the work inside the Warren (Mich.) Design Center—front and center.

The company is trying to show that it too knows how to innovate, and that the products of a long-term, design-driven revitalization are at last ready for prime time. Dave Rand, GM's executive director of interior design, says, "We don't have to keep making promises, we feel we have something we can show."

Countering Rivals with Style


Posted Image
Steering wheels are a key element of the “handshake”—the subtle physical interaction a driver has with a car that adds to the overall impression of the vehicle. These prototypes of steering wheels also help designers tease out the different brand characteristics of GM's many nameplates.

The world's biggest auto maker is in a highly publicized dogfight with Toyota, a company with a sterling reputation for innovation as well surging sales that could catapult it into the No. 1 position globally sometime this year. That leaves GM and its stable of eight auto brands warring on two related fronts: the first, staving off Japanese competition while attempting to cut costs at its varied divisions, which range from Saturn to Hummer; the second, fighting for relevance and quality in the eyes of consumers.

Now the company has begun showing products aimed at clawing back lost territory. A new version of Cadillac's flagship sports sedan, for example, features a "cut-and-sew" process by which coverings on the instrument panel, center console, and door trim are cut, sewn, and wrapped by hand, allowing for sartorial flourishes such as French stitching. It's the kind of detailing light years away from recent GM products. "We've learned the difference between what is expensive and what looks expensive," says Rand.

According to Rand, these new products stem from a corporate edict issued four years ago by Bob Lutz, the company's vice-chairman for global product development. The Lutz decree elevated design at large to primary status, increasing its budget and giving designers more power in decision-making. Additionally, the initiative gave equal importance to exterior and interior design—a first for the company, since the latter had previously been subordinate to body design. "We were extremely liberated," says Rand.

"Black Tie" Components


Posted Image
Designers take cues from jewelry when it comes to key fobs, the remote controls that can unlock doors and even start vehicles from a distance. They pay special attention to a fob's weight, aiming to give it a luxurious heft without making the piece a burden to carry.

Rand and his design team went to work, charged with transforming the company's interiors. Many GM products had been maligned by auto analysts and consumers for being seas of sexless hard plastics and flimsy components. Taking cues from furniture, jewelry, and graphic design, the GM team started with the basics: audio and climate controls, instrument clusters, seats, and even keys.

The first generation of new dash components—knobs, switches, buttons, and radio and climate controls—was dubbed "black tie," as in elegant and goes with everything. These elements—not the dashboard forms themselves but the components that populate them—could be used in Cadillac models as well as less expensive Chevrolets.

The idea, according to Zak, was to give components a weight and level of detailing noticeably more refined than previous products, and to distribute those improvements across the company's many brands.

Working with suppliers, the designers were able to develop a set of radio and climate controls that were more attractive but could be used in multiple models.

The resulting pieces are subtle examples of interaction design. Instead of being fabricated out of one piece of hard plastic, knobs that turn on a vehicle's headlamps, for instance, were made to have multiple components. The textured track where the fingers grip the knob gives it a heavy, well-built feeling. That particular component currently populates the dashboards of certain Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Saturn models.

Seats with an Aura


Posted Image
Dashboards are increasingly hosting “infotainment,” the various screens and gadgets that entertain passengers and provide information, from the current radio station to driving directions. This futuristic concept dash incorporates a GPS navigation device as well as a media player.

Seats were another area of focus. Jim Gasparotto, creative designer for color and trim, says inspiration comes from the fabrics used in home furnishings, which display more flair and personality than the habitual gray or black of most car interiors. Gassparotto helped develop deep tan seats with high-quality textures and detailed stitching for the new Saturn Aura, released last year. "Seats are one of the most important components," he says. "They're often the first thing you notice when you open the doors, and they create first impressions."

The company says that of customers buying Auras with leather seating, 30% are choosing Gasparotto's sexy but unconventional Morocco Brown package. For the designer, that's a gratifying statistic, especially since many auto journalists suspected the option would never make it to dealer showrooms.

Designers are still working on GM's key fobs, the miniature remote controls attached to most new car keys. "A key fob is statement, the only component that walks away from the car," says Zak. "In the past, we've had very utilitarian key fobs that work but don't take advantage of the branding opportunity. Our goal is for those to become a conversation piece."

Backslapping Begins


Posted Image
Designers pay close attention to texture, particularly on the most touched component—the steering wheel. The feel of a steering wheel has proven to influence opinions of the driving experience. This prototype steering wheel for Buick features multiple textures including brushed steel.

Zak showed development prototypes of fobs that play with form and functionality, blocks of clear, shaped resin and wood, some oval and rounded, others sharp and high-tech looking. Designers, she says, are taking a page from jewelers and makers of high-end watches that are meticulously weighted to feel luxurious and substantial in hand.

The company's efforts have already started paying off. New interiors from the Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Pontiac divisions picked up numerous accolades at last year's Interior of the Year awards held annually by Ward's. And the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado pickup and Saturn Aura sedan were named North American truck and car of the year, respectively, at the North American International Auto Show in January. Both vehicles feature the "black tie" generation of components.

Industry analysts have also been impressed. The recently debuted 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, a high-volume sedan likely to cost around $20,000, stole the Detroit show with an interior crafted to dazzle. That model combines components from other GM models with seats similar to those now popular in the Aura but adds a cabin sculpted like an airline cockpit and an available set of unusual but evocative two-tone color combinations.

Coming Attraction


Posted Image
These key fobs, already available with some Cadillac models, are part of a new generation designed to start conversations. Key fobs are the only vehicle component besides the keys themselves that wander away from cars. GM thinks these could serve as free advertising—if their designs are striking enough.

"It's incredible," says Erich Merkle, director of forecasting at IRN, a Grand Rapids (Mich.)-based automotive research group. "That interior just blows away expectations. I expect it to have a huge effect."

"It certainly looks like a tremendous value for the price," says Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com. "It looks like a $40,000 Lexus inside."

Reviews like that are music to GM's ears, no doubt. But designers at the salon had one more piece of work to show off that won't be available until later this year. In the corner of GM's exhibit sat one of four preproduction Cadillac CTS sport sedans. The new version of that vehicle is the first to feature a host of the design lab's next-generation developments.

The CTS's interior is intended as another drastic leap forward. Unlike the "black tie" dash components, the audio and climate control systems are designed to be customizable on a model-by-model and cabin-by-cabin basis. Controls, for instance, can be designed and distributed independently of each other, not having to be a part of a commonly defined layout.

Ready for Reaction


Posted Image
Much of what shows up in concept renderings rarely makes it into production vehicles. Here, designers use renderings to play with space and organization. This setup is intended to provide more utility in the baseboards of a vehicle's trunk.

That allows designers to create sweeping surfaces with integrated buttons and knobs more appropriate to the style of each car. That process adds cost, admits Rand, but he and other executives believe the improvements in quality are worth it. "Here, the layout is much more subdominant to the overall themes of the cabin," notes Zak. "That allows us, in this case, to create a sense of spaciousness and sportiness."

The fruits of GM's new interior-design initiative are now either just hitting dealer lots or on the production line. It remains to be seen how sales and quality perceptions are affected, and that has left Rand's designers working fervently on future interiors with one ear cocked to catch industry and consumer reaction. "We didn't really have a choice," says Rand, referring in part to the directive from the top but also to the damage low-quality interiors had done to the company's reputation, "but I'm glad we're here now."

Posted Image
Another area in which GM designers have made big leaps is ambient cabin lighting. New vehicles take cues from recessed lightings in luxury homes, incorporating subtle sources of light throughout car cabins. Here, a prototype blinker stalk sports a small light to make it easy to locate in the dark.


Posted Image
The adoption of integrated cameras into vehicles is taking more time than some HAD predicted. Common are cameras that give drivers a clearer view of what's behind them—think hulking SUVs—but this prototype rearview mirror shows how video could be incorporated into slide-out LCDs.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This is an awesome article, and definitely forecasts a bright future.

It's good to see the STS getting the SLS interior as well.

That's cool, but I'll be impressed when they stop using the "black tie" and better integrate more of their center stacks in things besides the CTS.

Did you read this part?...

In the corner of GM's exhibit sat one of four preproduction Cadillac CTS sport sedans. The new version of that vehicle is the first to feature a host of the design lab's next-generation developments.

The CTS's interior is intended as another drastic leap forward. Unlike the "black tie" dash components, the audio and climate control systems are designed to be customizable on a model-by-model and cabin-by-cabin basis. Controls, for instance, can be designed and distributed independently of each other, not having to be a part of a commonly defined layout.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I want that Buick FOB now. It's at least on par with the new Cadillac's black FOB. A very interesting read, definitely encouraging to consumers everywhere. It's always good to know GM is keeping design a high priority, a must if you want to survive in this business.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I like it, I like it a lot. Espeically the lit accessory stalks. Although I think it would be nicer to have the lighting intensify as you do something like say, turn the wiper speed up, the light get a tick brither, then dim back down as you crank the wiper speed down.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I like the keyfobs, its about time! VW, Merecedes, and BMW have been doing this for years so its time for GM to have some cool little innovations. I really like the updated STS interior too.

Edited by RJB

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Glad to see the car designers, not the accountants, are having their way. Cool keys, felt-lined gloveboxes, damped hinges, rubberized controls, tactile steering wheels, ambient interior lighting, refined turn signal sounds, door slam thunks, and polished trunk/hood struts alone sell VW/Audis.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A design brilliance is emerging from GM. The Buick fob looks nice, but does it need to be so big? GM should have the fob integrated into the key.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This is an EXCELLENT read! It looks like GM is doing EVERYTHING right!!!

I can't wait till we see some more of this in production! I would LOVE to see division specific steering wheels instead of the generic wheels of today. I also think the key fobs are an area that could have HUGE pay off.

Now if we could just get GM to bring back the chrome-bar-horn in Chevrolets (Think Bel Air concept)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I totally agree, design sells. GM Design was at the forefront until they started copying foreign designs. Now they're back and ready to explode.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Right; this is the level of innovation and leadership GM used to have- great to see it coming back full force.

Toyota, a company with a sterling reputation for innovation

wha?? this is new!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Awesome read! I'm looking forward to some of this stuff making it into vehicles in the future.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That Buick fob looks like it costs as much as a high-end watch. Very nice, indeed, along with the possible Buick steering wheel. Hopefully Buick will have more than one vehicles (Enclave) that actually matches the design and luxury of it. The lighted windshield wiper stalk is a great idea and the (possible) 2008 STS interior is such a step up from what we have now.

That comment about the Malibu made me laugh, though. How much did GM pay Edmunds to say that? Maybe the writer thought he was talking about the Malibu when he really was talking about the GMT900 or Lambda interiors?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

this stuff is looking great,

a note though: i think it'd be great to see 3 majorly different steering wheels, 2 spoke (possible low-middle end) , 3 spoke(middle or sport models) and 4 spoke (for high-end) would be very cool

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I will agree I am GM fan. But being an automotive fan in general, I have to say that GM has been impressing me with their innovations lately.

While the Japsco Inc. (although I will excuse Honda) are trying not to run off their tried and tested path, GM is innovating and pushing the limits. Like the BLUE OCEAN STRATEGY.

HERR! GM

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Strange. I've never found steering wheels or keys as sexy as I do right now.

I agree and that would be one of the times I would not mind puttingmy keys/fob on the coffeee table while hanging around with my friends/associates. That stuff is sexy.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Your content will need to be approved by a moderator

Guest
You are commenting as a guest. If you have an account, please sign in.
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoticons maximum are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.