GM's Perfect Future

Frank Saucedo, the head of the automaker's advanced design studio, talks about the challenges of creating futuristic vehicles that may never hit the road

The importance placed on design by General Motors' (GM) top executives was on clear display at this year's L.A. Auto Show. The auto giant's many show stands—from Cadillac to Chevrolet—were loaded with evocative models, and it even committed to building one of the concepts on display at the show, the Chevy Beat. The carmaker also announced plans to produce a version of its Chevrolet Volt hybrid concept.

It seems GM is on a roll. In January, daring redesigns of its Saturn Aura sedan and mainline Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck earned the coveted North America Car and Truck of the Year awards, respectively. A long-standing design-driven turnaround at Cadillac continues to show progress, with the 2008 CTS, showing the continued evolution of its Art & Science design mandate and recently scooping Motor Trend magazine's coveted Car of the Year award.

Given the task of creating future GM designs that could take a decade to hit the road—if they ever do—is a group of some 40 designers working in GM's West Coast Advanced Design Studio in North Hollywood, Calif. At the L.A. Auto Show, Innovation & Design writer Matt Vella sat down with Frank Saucedo, who's been director of the studio for the past eight years. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

There are 800 designers at GM's headquarters in Michigan, yet you have a small group here in California. What exactly does your group of designers do?

We're kind of a satellite [office]. Our biggest focus is automotive architecture, that is, the [engineering] platforms our cars are built on. We look at our brands' portfolios and ask, "What are the next hot vehicle segments?" and "How can we use our existing platforms to design new cars?" It sounds like a cliché, but a lot of it is trying to get in touch with what customers are doing. There's a good deal of trend analysis, and we do a lot of work with informal focus groups.

At what point does design meet engineering?

Every new platform is a major undertaking. It's not only creativity in design, it's also serious engineering. We don't develop these ideas in a vacuum, we get engineering involved from the very beginning. Luckily, with GM's global brands, we can ask engineering what's possible with existing architectures from around the world.

Have you ever found that, despite all your research and marketing, a vehicle ends up appealing to an entirely different segment of the buying public than expected? What then?

In terms of our own products, with the Cadillac Escalade we tried to create the most premium of all premium SUVs and it has garnered a really diverse crowd, from the CEO to [members of] the movie and music industries. I wish I could say that was planned, but it wasn't. The lesson in both cases is if you design unique vehicles you're going to draw people in. Every car has to have a really good story behind it. If it doesn't, the ability for it to do well in the market is going to be hit or miss.

Is it difficult to shift from designing for one of GM's luxury brands like Saab to, say, a more rugged type of vehicle like a GMC?

Honestly, that is probably one of the most difficult aspects of this job. If you're drawing a Cadillac one day and the next day you're drawing a Hummer, you might have to seriously ask yourself: does it look too truck-y? It is an interesting and challenging shift for a designer to make. We try to immerse ourselves in the particular brand—the corporate strategy, the story behind it—from the very beginning, before we actually sit down and sketch.

As a designer, what happens if the idea or story of a brand is in the process of changing?

As the advanced design studio, part of our job is to be provocateurs. I think what we did for the L.A. design challenge [an annual concept design contest held at the L.A. Auto Show] last year, was a good example. The Hummer 02 concept was a small hydrogen-based Hummer with these algae-filled panels [to produce oxygen from sunlight and pump it back into the atmosphere]. It was way out there. But, the idea of a green Hummer? Absolutely. Why not? Designers can change the paradigm of a brand, especially with advanced and concept designs. And I think that Hummer, for example, at some point will make that transition.

Is it frustrating working on projects that, best case, are a decade or more away and, worst case, may never see production?

The hardest thing is if you've designed a vehicle that is going toward release and then, for whatever reason—money or something in the marketing—it gets rehashed or stopped. Especially if we started it and handed it over to someone to execute the final product. That's defeating. But, on the other hand, there's always something else. The coolest thing about working with GM is there are so many brands to work on.

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