Days Of The Future Past
Where we consider eras, foundations, robots, and cars long in coming.
"2009 marks the beginning of a new era for Chevrolet and General Motors," said Ed Peper, GM North America vp in charge of Chevy, at the 2009 Chicago Auto Show. Clearly, he wasn't using the word era in the geologic sense, as the shortest one (the Cenozoic, for those of you counting) has lasted some 65 million years. Chevrolet is going to market with, primarily, an array of more fuel-efficient vehicles than has been the case heretofore, from the diminutive Spark (~40 mpg highway) to the plug-in hybrid Volt (they like to call it an "extended-range, rechargeable electric vehicle"). While Chevy is significantly less geriatric in association than, say, Buick, in order for it-or any brand, for that matter-to be relevant on an on-going basis, it must attract the attention of young people. Some people complain that the attention to the young is wasted because they don't have any money; most brands have products that are eminently suitable for the more mature generation. So Chevy, in an effort to bring itself to the attention to a younger demographic, participated in the 2007 movie Transformers. The standout vehicle in the movie is the 2010 Chevy Camaro. It transformed into the robot named "Bumblebee," and quite handily put the ultimate beatdown on the Decepticons. Peper said, "After the movie, awareness for Camaro. . . jumped 97%. . . . Most important, 70% of the Transformer audience fell within the coveted 13-to-34 age group."
The Camaro will be arriving in showrooms near you soon, if not already. But here's one thing that strikes me about the Camaro and what has been something of a modus operandi at GM for the past several years, and one that isn't particularly helpful to its fortunes. Remember the Chevy SSR, the pickup-truck-cum-hot-rod? That vehicle was in production for three years ('03 to '06)-approximately the same amount of time that it was shown in drawings, models, etc. People were essentially underwhelmed by the time it arrived. Camaro has had a similar run-up. The concept was "officially" revealed at the 2006 North American International Auto Show, but anyone who cared already knew about it. Three years from the concept to the car. While no one is going to be ho-hum about the Camaro, its existence in the market has been too long for the amount of buzz that it should have. While the three-year development time is certainly respectable, consider the "coveted 13-to-34 age group." This is a cohort of people, the oldest of whom consider Frost/Nixon a historic curiosity, as the latter had resigned the presidency the year before they were born. This is a group who expects things fast, fresh (and often free). For them, three years is a lifetime (and for the 13-year-olds, it is certainly an era). To be sure, no company can afford to shoot from the hip-especially when they're building cars and trucks with tooling that requires a long time for cost amortization. But no company can survive by rolling out products with what may be perceived as a glacial velocity. One thing auto needs to learn from companies like Apple is not only how to create cooler designs more consistently, but that it is important to have less time between announcement and shipment. Stretching a buzz too long turns into z-z-z-z-z-z.
The sequel to Transformers will appear in July. Bumblebee will be back, joined by an array of other Chevy Autobots. The subtitle of the movie is in some ways ironic: Revenge of the Fallen. With its 2008 $30.9-billion loss, GM is obviously fallen. But will it get its revenge, or will it be like those whose reign ended in the Cretaceous period?