New communications technology, particularly the Internet, is turning Americans into trend-savvy and extremely demanding new-vehicle buyers, said Wayne Cherry, General Motors vice president of design.
'Customers' expectations are being influenced by events and people they didn't even know existed a short time ago. They're expecting great design. They're expecting great innovation,' Cherry said in a speech to the Automotive News World Congress.
'Which only makes it more important for us to create a more diverse and innovative product portfolio for each of our brands.'
Because GM's customers are now 'instantly aware of new trends and styles on a global basis,' the automaker must keep up through customer feedback and by following design trends outside of the automotive realm, such as in furniture design and architecture, he said.
Additionally, GM is creating a network of satellite design studios in cities throughout the world that 'will serve not only as design posts but as listening posts.'
During his speech, Cherry even got some free customer feedback from the audience using electronic polling devices at each table. Cherry asked the audience to choose the car of the century - attendees overwhelmingly picked the Ford Model T - and the most significant truck innovation of the century - 65 percent chose the minivan.
Technology also is changing dramatically the way automakers design new vehicles, Cherry said. So much so, traditional automobile design skills such as clay sculpting are disappearing.
'Today, clay sculptors are becoming digital sculptors who use their intellect and knowledge of form to create designs without touching clay,' he said.
Indeed, GM designers took GM's hot new concept vehicle, the Chevrolet SSR small truck roadster, from computer sketch to full-sized model without sculpting a single clay model.
Cherry showed some of the computer-generated animation GM designers used to develop the Chevrolet SSR. The video displayed how the concept truck's convertible top worked and then showed the SSR revving its engines and speeding away, tires screeching.
He joked: 'Remember when we used to do that with a sketch? And we had to make the noise ourselves.'