Bob Lutz and the End of Design

Bob Lutz, on what he thinks vehicles of 30 years from now will look like: think “shipping container.”

When Bob Lutz rejoined GM in 2001, one of the things that he did was question the status quo.  While this was several years before GM had filed for bankruptcy, Lutz could see that many of the prevailing practices made little sense.  Yet one of the things was that as is the case with many organizations, the practices had become baked in.  People didn’t question them because “that’s the way we do things.”   It was pretty much taken for granted. Sure, some of the things seemed silly or downright stupid, “but that’s the way we do things.”

Lutz had pads of Post-It notes printed up with the phrase “Sez Who?” on them, then set about to go through the organization questioning what had been unquestioned.

Changes happened, for the positive.

One of the groups that was most empowered by Lutz was Design.  No, he didn’t run GM Design. But he knew that one of the reasons people buy one product rather than another is because they find the design to be appealing.  A problem that GM products had, he knew, was that the design was being based not on taste or aesthetic or simply appeal, but on the vehicle line executive making a number.  A number on a spreadsheet.  Which led to the subtraction of appealing sheet metal (reduce the number of hits in the die and the complexity of the die and save money) and even chrome trim pieces (which may not cost a whole lot individually, but when you’re talking about a couple hundred thousand vehicles per year, that adds up to real money).  Designs were either bland or. . . .

When I talk to designers who had been at GM when Lutz was there (he retired in 2010),  they testify to how empowering he was.

And it could be argued that the GM designs on the road today, which are, by and large, attractive, are the way they are in no small part because Lutz made people at all levels of the organization understand the importance of design.

Given that, I was rather taken aback on a recent “Autoline After Hours” when Lutz, our guest, started describing what he thinks the vehicles of 30 years from now will look like.

Think “shipping container.”

That’s right, stylish, shaped sheet metal will give way to functionality.  When it comes to autonomous vehicles, vehicles that are going to work in an environment with like vehicles, often platooned as you go from A to B, then the exterior is going to be pretty much irrelevant.  Therefore, it goes to the function of containing and transporting people and goods.

Lutz suggests that the primary difference is going to be the length of the vehicles.  Otherwise, for reasons of aerodynamic efficiency, the width and height of the vehicles will be the same.

So what about design? I asked him.  “Can you name the designer of a subway car?” he responded, adding, “How about the designer of a rail car?”

The differentiation will come mainly in interior design.

As for styled cars, Lutz says that they’ll continue to exist, but not necessarily on public roads.  They’ll be driven mainly on private race tracks that are even now popping up, places like Monticello in upstate New York.

An analogy that Lutz uses: horses.  Just as in the early 20th century, when the car and truck began to increase in numbers, the horse, which had been the primary means of transport, suddenly decreased in number.  Today, absent farms and ranches, horses are pretty much an expensive hobby.

This can’t possibly happen.

Sez who?