GM's Engineering Chief Explains Technology, Global Development Challenges

"Do unto yourself before others do unto you," GM's John Calabrese said. "Paranoia isn't a bad thing in this business. There's a lot of [competing] companies out there that want to go after the consumer."

Calabrese champions data analysis at GM, a task he likens to what the Oakland Athletics baseball team did in the book-turned-movie "Moneyball." The 34-year company veteran is the automaker's vice president of global engineering, directing some 16,000 engineers across facilities from Detroit to South Africa. He works with GM's other executive teams — from design to powertrain — to concoct the automaker's future cars.

We chatted with Calabrese at a Midwest Automotive Media Association event, and he gave a candid look at what it's like to develop a car for consumers across six continents.

The General, whose U.S. brands include Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC, has some victories of late. Sales through September track with the industry's 8 percent rise, and, absent onetime expenditures, the automaker beat analysts' expectations for third-quarter profits. The report card also has some blemishes, however: Consumer Reports' annual reliability survey pegged GMC and Buick above other Detroit brands, but Chevrolet fell below average and Cadillac ranked 25th among 28 brands. Its touch-sensitive Cadillac User Experience controls, in particular, drew criticism — though the magazine admits GM has issued software updates since the surveys came in.

"We might have gone too far in certain markets, in certain vehicles," Calabrese said, likening the so-called capacitive-touch controls to an iPhone screen versus the physical keys on a BlackBerry. The keys are still tools of ruthless typing efficiency, Calabrese noted, but the smartphone users have largely abandoned them for touch-screen phones.

Indeed, we've held mixed opinions on CUE. The system took a hit earlier this year when no CUE-equipped Cadillacs earned awards in two influential studies from J.D. Power and Associates. Still, Calabrese said GM is "sticking with it in some markets and adapting in others." He objected to what one Mazda official told us in September — that capacitive-touch systems exist because they're cheaper to make. CUE is no cost-cutter, Calabrese insisted.

Still, "there [were] a couple misses on our first introduction," he admitted. "Question is, are they misses, or is this an appropriate use of technology? We're analyzing this market-by-market."

And analysis is Calabrese's mantra. Even in something as subjective as a car, there are right and wrong moves.

"I can solve a problem and put switches on a door trim," he said. "I could put switches on a seat. I could put switches on the IP [instrument panel]. All of them are technically feasible, [but only] one of them is technically right to the consumer. I need to go and do the analysis."

That begs the question of which consumer to target. Global vehicle platforms, which have led to cars from the Chevrolet Cruze to the Ford Focus, allow automakers to leverage product-development resources from multiple continents. It saves a lot of money to develop one car instead of three or four, but the results can alienate U.S. shoppers. Case in point: the redesigned (and global) Chevrolet Malibu, whose backseat is too snug for U.S. shoppers. Through September, Malibu sales in the U.S. remain well behind competition from Ford, Honda, Nissan and Toyota.

"We're addressing it," Calabrese said. "The crux of it is, we tried to have one standard solution. And the standard solution didn't hit the market dot anywhere."

How much can GM do? The automaker issued a quick refresh with the 2014 Malibu; its backseat has more usable legroom thanks to revised seat cushions. More substantive changes, however, will need a full redesign.

Designing global cars with enough tweaks for specific markets is tricky business. Volkswagen did it right with the U.S. Passat, which has a slew of differences from the Passat sold in Europe.

"You've got to hit the market dot for each one of the [global] consumers, and then you've got to industrialize it efficiently," Calabrese said. "We [used to] design our cars for the least common denominator. … We designed the car for 1 percent of the global market, so the poor dude who's buying a car in [Chicago's] Cook County is driving the car for some guy in northern Sweden. Those days are long gone."

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