GM floats auto concepts on virtual design studio

Looking to drum up excitement for future product ideas, GM opens a social-networking site called The Lab to share design concepts and spiff up its image with consumers.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

WARREN, Mich.--Got an opinion about how General Motors designs its cars and trucks? Let them know.

GM on Tuesday unveiled a blog Web site called The Lab that it hopes will give the struggling auto giant a bead on customer preferences. It's part social-marketing campaign and part product research, company executives said here on Tuesday.

"We want to use this to show where the company is headed, but there are limitations--we're not going to show concepts of cars that will come out next year," said Dave Rand, the director of design at GM's Tech Center, one of its main research centers. "The ideas we'll show will tend to be further out and not be as rigid."

Instead of giving away secrets of planned products, the idea is to get feedback on concepts, such as whether a new type of car will fly with customers, using images and videos to illustrate the company's ideas.

Work for you? A digital model of a bare-bones car shown on GM's new site for communicating design ideas with customers. GM

The first three projects hosted on The Lab are for a bare necessities compact car, a bare necessity truck, and an Eco Initiative to better understand the interests of "green" buyers.

The Lab is set up to be like a social-networking site where people have a profile and log in. People can rate designs and provide comments. There will also be a way to opt in and provide demographic information in exchange for access to new designs, company executives said.

Rand said that providing an inside look of GM designers' work is not meant to replace auto shows or building models of concept cars. But getting feedback from fans and foes will allow designers to cycle through concepts more quickly.

"The way we used to do research through (customer) clinics is cumbersome and expensive," he said.

Currying favor with customers
GM discussed The Lab with a handful of journalists at a media and analyst day hosted by the company's top management where the company gave a glimpse of its lineup over the next two years.

The emphasis of the discussions was intentionally on product and designs that company executives hope will drive revenue now that GM has slashed costs and restructured through bankruptcy.

GM is also seeking to spiff up its corporate image with consumers, using social media of all sorts to get out its message. The media event, for example, was Webcast and open to questions from the public, while communications specialists used Twitter to answer questions online during the day.

In another sign of GM trying to better understand American consumers, GM's top executives, including CEO Fritz Henderson and his staff, met for a full day with consumers on Monday, many of whom do not own GM vehicles.

GM's Rand said that The Lab site will allow GM to share designs that it doesn't now. But, it clearly needs to temper some of that openness so as not to give away trade secrets. During media tours of GM's design studios on Tuesday, journalists were barred from carrying cameras.

"We're going to be walking the line, quite frankly. We're trying to be more transparent, but at the same time we're somewhat protective because it's intellectual property," Rand said.