Lessons from Volt's development hastened GM product process

David Barkholz is a staff reporter for Automotive News.
The unique technology marriage in the Chevrolet Volt of electric power and a traditional engine clearly is the reason the plug-in hybrid sedan has a great chance to carry away North American Car of the Year honors Monday.

But GM executives say the vehicle and its development also have had a profound influence inside of General Motors on the way product decisions are made.

When the Volt made a splash as a concept at the Detroit auto show in 2007, Bob Lutz and his GM brethren made the bold promise that they would deliver the first production cars to dealer showrooms in 2010.


At the time, GM didn't have the battery technology to propel the car – or even a dedicated battery laboratory, said Doug Parks, the Volt's vehicle line executive. Forget such minor details as electric motors, aerodynamics and the complex software needed for a conventional engine to interface with the car's battery pack.

Given the perils of traversing GM's notorious bureaucracy at the time, there would be no way to meet the deadline, Parks said. So GM created its own board of directors for the Volt.

It had 12 members, including Lutz, current product chief Tom Stephens, Volt godfathers Jon Lauckner and Frank Weber and key representatives from design, engineering and manufacturing, Parks said.

The leadership board bypassed multiple layers of decision-making built into the traditional GM product-development model, Parks said. The Volt board had direct access to CEO Rick Wagoner and, when funding was needed, to the GM board of directors, he said.

Ed Welburn, GM's design chief, says the stand-alone board was instrumental in GM meeting its 2010 delivery date.

Parks estimates that under the traditional decision making process of pre-meeting, meeting, tabled decisions, approval to the next council, etc., it would have taken an additional 18 months to finish the Volt, if it had ever been green-lighted.

“It wasn't like you had to wait until the next month to get on somebody's calendar,” Welburn said.

The process worked so well that about seven months ago the Volt leadership board was disbanded and folded into GM's Global Product Development Council, which was reorganized to reflect the streamlined product review of the Volt board. Today, each GM vehicle project gets a fewer number of reviews, Parks said.

The bold technology leap that the Volt represents is what the public sees. But the Volt has also speeded up GM's slow decision making, if the changes noted by Parks take root.

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