Lutz's charge: Keep GM safe for car guys

TOKYO - Robert Lutz thinks he has figured out how to end General Motors' string of lackluster cars: He wants a "car crazies council" to generate hot designs.

Lutz quickly admits that the term is just a working name, but he's serious about the concept. In an interview at the Tokyo Motor Show, Lutz made it clear that he's already wrestling with how to empower designers beyond his tenure as vice chairman for product development.

GM's future guardian of good design "may never be a single person," he says, but a permanent group of fervent car buffs.

"Let's say we created a 'car crazies council' and peopled it with some of the absolutely superb car guys - guys in a nongender usage," Lutz said. "We'd have this group of people who have true passion for the product lobbing ideas into the hopper, along with the more analytical system."

Before Lutz, such an idea might have had no chance at GM. But Lutz made it clear he believes change is accelerating at GM, where he has worked as design advocate and general iconoclast since Sept. 1.

Industry analyst Todd Turner of Car Concepts in Thousand Oaks, Calif., says GM's design process "has a choke hold (on designers) because everyone is designing and doing their jobs based on their interpretation of what management wants to see, and that's all out of a culture of fear."

"If you don't do what management wants, then you don't keep your job," he said.

"Lutz's challenge is to cut the metaphorical noose that is around everyone's neck at GM. He needs to get people to feel that they can express their thoughts and ideas, be excited about them, and put the thoughts and ideas out there and not feel like they are going to be rejected by management."

Higher share

Lutz believes that if GM can improve its cars and unleash successful new trucks and hybrids, the automaker will make long-term market share gains.

"I firmly believe that," Lutz said. "I think that within three years' time we will consistently be over 30 percent and heading upward."

GM's U.S. share so far this year is 27.8 percent.

Strong car design is the key prerequisite to gain share, he says. Lutz expresses confidence in coming trucks and hybrids that he had "actually nothing do to with," but says GM's gains in trucks continue to be offset by share losses in cars.

The likely solution will be a rejiggering of the product approval process, Lutz says. "It's just a subtle shifting of who has what influence when and of re-establishing a bias of influence back toward design, and I know exactly where I've got to modify to do that," he said.

But Lutz scotches any notion that the company, by empowering design, will try to live on an endless stream of niche vehicles and sexy special models. GM, as a mainstream car company, needs high-volume models, he says.

"We've gotta give attention to those models that should be selling at 300,000 or 350,000 vehicles a year," he said.

Without attractive mass-appeal cars, GM will remain stuck in its rut of high-20s market share, he says.

"All we really have to do is do the next generation of cars in a more compelling and desirable way, and I'm talking external and internal design," Lutz said. "If we achieve that, if we can just stop the erosion in car share without resorting to excessive incentives to get there, without resorting to excessive daily rental sales and subsidized leases and all these things that damage your business in the long run, then I think we're winning."

Lutz as catalyst

Lutz says he has pushed hurry-up design changes on near-term production models - and confronted the puzzle of how GM's culture stymies talent.

For instance, he says, when he demanded fixes on in-process cars with flawed designs, he found that the staff in some cases already had identified the faults and had devised fixes but was stymied by the GM bureaucracy. GM has had a "don't make waves" ethic that has allowed mediocre work to go forward, he says.

"I have gotten in and fixed some stuff and violated the process in doing so because these cars were ready to go and nobody was really satisfied with them," he said. "So that tells you right there, if a design is progressing toward production and nobody is really happy with it - marketing isn't happy with it, design isn't happy with it, senior management isn't happy with it - how does that happen?"

Lutz says his first priority was to get the design right. But, he adds: "Then you have to step back and say, 'What is this system that lets less than blockbuster cars - cars that represent less than the best General Motors can do - slip through the system?' That's what I'm in the process of figuring out right now."

Product Editor Rick Kranz contributed to this report

You can reach Dave Guilford at

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