DETROIT - If people love some of them and hate others, General Motors' new concept cars will have met a primary goal: Demonstrate that the company is not afraid to take risks.
In an unusual step, GM invited the media to preview nine new concept cars that will hit the international auto-show circuit next year. The vehicles are meant to show innovation and risk-taking that GM says will drive its product decisions in the next decade.
In the past, GM has been criticized for not translating concept-car styling and features into its conservative production cars. These days, however, the company is struggling to improve its 29.7 percent market share in North America and says it is willing to take chances.
Half of the GM vehicles currently under development will have some kind of innovative feature or will be aimed at a new segment, said Wayne Cherry, vice president of design.
'We want to be the industry leader in product innovation. We're taking risks and removing the fear of failure,' he said.
Actually, the company will take calculated risks, said GM Pres-ident Rick Wagoner.
'We may hit some home runs,' he said. 'We may hit some doubles and singles. We may strike out, though we hope we won't.'
The real goal is to be the first to tap into a new seam in the market. For that plum, GM is willing to gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on new vehicles with less-than-certain prospects, Wagoner said.
'With a portfolio as big as ours, you can afford to take some risks,' he said.
To improve the odds of hitting a homer, GM is using a multistep process to winnow hundreds of product ideas down to a few buildable concepts.
The meat grinding begins with futurists trying to predict trends in society and the market and how they will affect automobiles.
Their broad ideas become two-dimensional drawings, the best of which are plotted with three-dimensional surface modeling software and projected in a new multiscreen amphitheater in the company's design center.
In a few cases, the 3-D images become the basis for clay or fiberglass models, which GM's management considers for production.
Only one of every 20 ideas makes it through the process, said John Taylor, GM's director of portfolio development.
The studio where 2-D drawings are turned into 3-D models is wallpapered with sketches of vehicles and parts straight from 'The Jetsons' TV cartoon.
Some ideas are subtle: a cupholder with an internal gyroscope to keep it upright through turns.
Others are grander: a pickup truck hinged at the center and equipped with a swing-out steering column that allows the driver to maneuver it from the curb side.
But designers never lose sight of the slim chances their ideas will make it to production.
Says Taylor: 'We tell them not to fall in love with anything.'