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GM’s design chief is primed for the transportation revolution

‘I see this role as a lot different to the past’

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Photo by Fabrizio Costantini for The Verge

Last year, General Motors sold 10 million cars, and for the first time, most of its buyers live in China. But what will those 10 million cars look, feel, and behave like in a decade? By that time, electrification, the race to autonomy, and car-sharing programs will be gradually integrated into the traditional model of personal cars. While those ideas are already being explored in small ways, they represent a minuscule aspect of how people use cars today.

On Monday, GM announced that it will introduce 20 new electric models by 2023, and in a blog post, the CEO Mary Barra described this era as a “transportation revolution.” In order to be ready for that upheaval, decisions on what that future looks like must be made now. Around 2030, the work and vision of General Motor chief of design Michael Simcoe, and the 2,000 people that work in both design studio and associated shops will be put to the test.

An interview with Simcoe in his mid-century modern office at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, is a reminder of the scope of his role. Located in an eastern Detroit suburb, the site itself was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2015, among Eero Saarinen’s greatest creations. In addition to tulip chairs, Saarinen was the architect of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, IBM headquarters, and the TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport. President Eisenhower inaugurated the Tech Center in a buoyant 1956 speech, in the post-war years where Detroit represented industrial excellence in the national psyche.

“We're doing everything now that you can imagine.”

“Coming to work here — particularly for me in this office, because I have always been part of it and affected by it — it just reinforces that this is a dedicated design environment,” he says. “This was the first dedicated campus for design and engineering anywhere in the world and the resurgence of midcentury modern that you’re seeing in the retail shops outside is a reminder also that this building is even more relevant right now than ever, but it's a humbling environment.”

In order to carry the company forward, Simcoe must redefine the tactile nature of how a car looks, feels, and communicates with the driver. “We're doing everything now that you can imagine. Traditional big trucks are the core of the business, but we’re also designing experience now.” He says that the investment in Cruise Automation is one area propelling designers to think about creating autonomous spaces, where there is no emotional connection to the drive experience. “So how do you create a branded environment inside a vehicle that you're not driving? And whether that's through connectivity, or whether that's through particular seating, colors, lighting, sound, smell, the gambit inside that vehicle.”

On the precipice of so much change, Simcoe doesn’t spend his days drawing cars. Most of his time is occupied with navigating the tricky path forward in vehicle design. “My job these days is to enable the experts, to provide them the support they need both emotionally as much as anything to do their job, because the business is more diverse than it’s been,” he said. “To have a vision for every piece of that business is very difficult. I don't pretend that I have the expertise. That would be stupidity. I have a vision for the brands. I have a vision for the capability of designers and the people who work here.”

Photo by Fabrizio Costantini for The Verge

Navigating a throughline between the past and GM’s future is what preoccupies Simcoe. In order to push the company through this era, the ability to think in new ways is essential. Most executives at Detroit companies are keenly aware of how nostalgia is not always a boon to business. It was only six years ago that the company was in the throes of bankruptcy proceedings. Since that time, it has seen a new CEO take over; it also introduced the Bolt, the first mass-market electric car.

When Simcoe succeeded Ed Welburn, who held the job for 13 years, he became the seventh General Motors design chief since Harley Earl formed the design department in 1927.

Simcoe has risen through the ranks of GM since he joined the company in 1983. A native Australian, it was his love for old English autos that first piqued his interest in sketching cars. He set up the company’s original product design studio in Korea.

“I see this role as a lot different to the past, where the physicality of the business that existed in Harley Earl’s day [has changed] to various degrees through the last six occupiers of this office,” he says. “I have a leadership team, which works the functions and works the brands, and executive directors who have been studio directors. It’s a pyramid,” he said. “And my direct connection to it all is through the VR studio or studio review. I see everything. We have a three-screen studio downstairs, which has a direct link connection to our studios overseas.”

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

His teams are divided by GM’s various brands. The more traditional makes are Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, GMC, and Holden. Others include Jiefang, Wuling, and Autobaojun, GM’s Chinese ventures. OnStar and Maven represent GM’s entry into connectivity and ride-sharing spaces. And some of that thinking is being guided by GM’s partnerships. “The Lyft piece is in the autonomous realm. That's the direct connection we have to them. The connection to customer experience inside of this vehicle.”

Lyft has its own version of the design experience. Lyft president John Zimmer defined all the ways a vehicle is an experience to The Verge in a 2016 interview. "If you think of yourself as the consumer, I can offer you 10 different vehicle types on the Lyft platform," Zimmer said. "They all have amazing Virgin America cabins-slash-beautiful hospitality experience inside. There's the private version if you want to do work on your ride, there's the sleeper car if you want to take a nap, there's the entertainment car if your friends and family want to watch movies, there's the bar car to have fun with other people on your ride home."

Photo by Fabrizio Costantini for The Verge

But within this organizational framework, some aspects of design span across various brands, such as user experience design. “We do have some studios, which are non-branded who work in the general UE environment and can service any of the studios and by mixing the brand studios and then the services that happen across all the brands. There are some parts of the business for customers you want to keep separate and keep the designers super focused on the brands. And there are parts of business where it's better for us to create solutions, which, on a business level, work across all of us: all the architectures and all the brands that still can connect and be different.” The tricky part of keeping these complex systems straight is staying focused on forward momentum. “We labor over things in detail and sometimes get too engrossed perhaps on some detail that in the end the customer will never see.”

While Simcoe won’t go into specifics on the looks of GM’s next generation of vehicles, he predicts that the common shapes of crossover vehicles will eventually change. “You'll see more vehicles, which look like they have more capability, but they are, perhaps underneath, they’re almost hatchbacks. The traditional SUVs have lots of plastic and big, aggressive faces, and you'll see a little bit of that, but it's not where the industry will progress.”

“We labor over things in detail.”

Part of what’s making the future hard to anticipate is judging the pace of development and keeping up with what the technology consumers expect from their smartphones, and, more and more, their cars. “It's running at a pace where we're hoping that chemistry advances to the point where batteries continue to be small and become less of an issue and that allow more distinction to the vehicle shape and packaging” Simcoe says. Much of this road forward will also be determined by legislation and regulations.

Even if Simcoe could tell me what the next Corvette looks like, pinpointing the major trends of 2030 remains daunting with so many unknowns. “We're not designing those vehicles in the studios right now. We're not that silly. I wish we knew.” Perhaps his greatest success will be re-creating a design environment that’s capable of rapidly changing gears.

Photo by Fabrizio Costantini for The Verge

I met with Simcoe as formal plans for a massive $1 billion expansion of its tech center were being announced (a large part of which includes the renovation of the design facilities and its historic dome). Like many designers, Simcoe first wanted to be an architect before he settled on car design. He showed me a model of the campus; construction will commence next year for a 2020 projected deadline. It’s a physical project about connecting a new way of doing business, without throwing away its past, a metaphor for the task at hand.

It’s impossible to ignore the history of this industrial might encased in Saarinen-designed catenary circular walls of Simcoe’s office. As he spoke, Simcoe stared past me, gazing at the water fountain, which, when it’s in action, pumps 6,000 gallons of water per minute into a 55-foot-tall wall of water, a vision that still stuns from another century. On that day, the water was still and clear like a sharp pane of glass.