Tuesday, August 25, 2009
General Motors recently launched a new social collaboration experiment called LAB. It sets out to gain insights from web users who are interested in the design direction and future product innovations GM is planning. It’s basically a glimpse into the design studio where concept vehicles are currently under development.
An introduction video from GM’s Manager of Advanced Design Wade Bryant shares that “The Lab is to share these ideas with a broader audience… to have an open dialogue.” This assumes that the open dialogue will further shape the end conceptual design and that GM can later claim that “x” concept vehicle was built with consumer input via The Lab’s collaborative environment; thereby, creating a better end product.
All of this reminds me of Herbert Powell, the brother of Homer Simpson, who exclaims, “I want you to design a car for all the Homer Simpsons out there.” He then gives Homer the opportunity to design a new car that would be devoid of the failings of an insular corporate culture that had become disconnected from the needs of the “Working Man.” Homer becomes the persona for all the needs and wants of that common man which ultimately leads to the unveiling of a new $82,000 car that shutters the company as its final effort to get things right only to have everything come to a bitter, misdirected end.
To be fair, GM's LAB doesn’t trust one person to make every decision; instead, it uses more of a crowdsourcing approach that seeks the inputs from many to find some consensus or unique ideas that may not have come from the internal corporate design team.
One company has applied the crowdsourcing model in automotive design to a much more radical interpretation and that is Local Motors. Local Motors is a very interesting experiment and is undergoing the real development of their Rally Fighter product, an off-road desert racer housing a BMW diesel engine. The Rally Fighter looks like what a Chevrolet Vega might have looked like today if it were to undergo decades of minor updates, you mounted a cluster of KC lights to the grille, and then gave it the ground clearance of some farm boy football player’s pickup truck. It’s a design only crowdsourcing could be proud of, definitely not a vehicle for mass appeal.
But I think LAB has little to do with true input into automotive design and more to do with perception. It shows that General Motors is listening to what most people criticize it for – not building what people want to drive. So, if you listen and open input from anyone with a computer and the ability to complete a simple registration form, no one can complain that GM is not building what people want.
Funny thing is, design isn’t GM’s issue as it has recently designed some very impressive vehicles lately: the new Camaro, GMC Acadia, Saturn Sky, Pontiac G8, Cadillac CTS and the new Chevy Malibu. Design isn’t the issue. The issue is people having a concern with long-term quality of American products and having little reason to switch from their favorite, reliable Asian car that meets their needs.
GM's LAB addresses nothing about quality, nor should it. The LAB instead is a Public Relations move to show that GM is listening and adjusting to consumer input.
I’m sure The Lab will affect future concepts so someone can point to the success of the project, but if this was really about collaboration to drive vehicle design The Lab would be more focused in its conversational execution. What I mean by that is the feedback on a vehicle would be topical and focus on particular elements of the design instead of being the free for all comment thread that is currently under each design study.
If we look at Local Motors and how they foster discussion, they host a Forum area that looks at unique steps across the vehicle development process. Discussions around design studies, chassis, wheel size, and other vehicle attributes focuses the commentaries around distinct areas that can be elaborated on further. Plus the Local Motors execution attracts vehicle designers instead of just the common workingman, allowing for less cheerleading for a brand and more serious commentary on design.
So in the end it’s essentially a Public Relations move to show GM is listening to those who criticize its vehicle development decisions. Whether it nets any real design impact will be purely accidental.