A few weeks back I was invited by GM to fly out to their Proving Grounds in (Milford) Detroit to test drive their new 2008 cars, take a “Drivers Skill Enhancement Course” (stunt school), interview some VP’s in Design and Energy, and have some fun. I’ve grown up driving Japanese cars but took this opportunity to dive into GM’s world with an open designers mind and to scope out all of their brands; Pontiac, Hummer, Saab, Cadillac, Saturn, Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC.
I’d like to thank GM for funding this gathering and would welcome this adventure again though I’d suggest a few changes which I’ll address throughout.
If ya don’t like to read, check out the video I composed from hundreds of pictures taken during the journey above.The entire journey and story after the jump.
First off, the coordination through GM for this trip was as easy as it gets; a few emails, a few webpage clicks, some calls, and poof, your set!
(The airport was seriously mad long. It took us awhile to notice the tram above our heads)
Upon arrival in Detroit’s crazy mile long airport (MetroAirport) we were greeted by GM employees with their black leather Yukon SUV which was incredibly comfortable. This beast was massive and made ya feel like a VIP in a bling bling way. Anyhoots, nice car for an initial impression though not a great impression on the green points.(they were flying in Eco Bloggers as well)
(GM was on strike the day we went.. poor dudes by himself though)
We went directly to the GM “Proving Grounds” to check in and get things rolling. Driving through Detroit made it clear that this city was proud of GM. No Japanese cars or other brands were in sight, but man, does this city like trucks! However, I did find out through the driver that the GM parking lot had signs saying, “No non-GM cars allowed past this point”. He just mentioned it, but I never saw any. I guess GM cars had better parking spaces.
Anyhow, 30 minutes later we arrived onto the “Proving Grounds” where GM owns a massive 67 acre space with private roads and highways cascading in all directions with a few thousand people testing out cars daily. It felt like an empty city since all the roads were empty except for a few mulling cars plastered in stickers running some tests like crash test dummies. This place was huge, flat, quiet, and very private. Our testing ground was the largest space there named “Black Lake” because it was flat and looked like a large dark lake from the sky after it rained. Tons of geese flocked in this area and ended up doing barrel rolls when landing since they expected a few inches of water rather than a hunk of concrete to land on. That’s gotta suck.
(the lunch area with a Volt model)
Who was there:
According to the staff, about 30 different bloggers were attending. My group consisted of the “Design and Lifestyle” bloggers and the group behind us consisted of the “Environmental” bloggers with a few car bloggers who were rather hard to talk to. Ahead of us were many other traditional media groups such as Wired, Popular Science, Technology Review, Newspapers, etc. My blogger group was experimental since GM noticed a large community of consumers listening to us (duh!) and probably a push from their 6 month old “Social Media Communications” created to make GM more savvy through non-traditional media mediums. Okay, lets jump to the fun stuff.
(The obviously unskilled curious one, me!)
I had no clue what to expect. Initially I thought we were going to drive mindlessly in circles about a tilted track course but upon entering the vast dessert like “black lake” covered in mangled spattered orange cones I knew this would be fun. Our first day was a mini stunt driving day though they called it the “Drivers Skill Enhancement Course” which included the following tests:
Evasive test: Drive 35-60 MPH between some cones towards. Once your car was 10-15 feet away from the upcoming wall of cones, the instructor shouted out “left” or “right”. No brakes were allowed. Yes, this was fun…Whoever sat in the backseat would whiplash side to side…I’m not sure if I’d be here if I didn’t not have my seatbelt on. What I learned here was that turning out of an obstacle was sometimes better than slamming onto your brakes and that cars are seriously responsive. What a start to this day! ( a few shakes to the brain means good times)
(I’ve never spun a wheel this fast)
Reverse Septentine and Backing: This was just doing things in reverse so nothing special. The only thing that stuck out was learning to go in reverse not using your rear view mirror, but rather your side mirrors. This was challenging at first, but once you got use to the side to side switching, you were fine, though my photographer kept running over cones. Note: most of the cars had rear cameras. Once you engaged reverse the camera would appear on your screen. The H3 had a retracting screen located next to your rear view mirror when you did this…smart!
(Sweeeeet! I approve!)
(Dude, Eddric’s hand freaks out when he needs to turn…do I see stress?)
Controlled Breaking: This was like the Evasive test but using your breaks. They changed tires on these test cars weekly. The only thing we learned here is that we are not suppose to lift our foot up to break, but rather pivot it from the gas position. This basically eliminated a jerky stop. I did this already but they had to show us. Design note: why don’t car manufactures add a slight indention like a ball bearing to have people lock in their heels? The instructor said this indention happened over time.
Skid: (Skid Monster Video) Alright this was the big mysterious test that everyone flipped out on. This is where the back tires were removed and replaced with the “Skid Monster” which allowed a driver to experience extreme skidding conditions.The $8,000 gizmo worked like a dream with a remote control locking and releasing the back tires. Once it was released it felt like you were driving on an ice rink with no control. When the instructor demoed it, it felt nice…ya’d be sliding/drifting sideways while driving forward, but when it came to your turn, you would either spin out a ton of 360’s in a matter of seconds or ya’d get the hang of it and be gliding side to side like a ballet dancer in a car. I got the hang of it, but actually enjoyed skidding out donuts super fast since it made ya dizzy with screeeeching tires.
(It’s not easy to make a car angle like that…imagine being inside…fun yeah!)
ESC (Electronic Stability Control Test): So after doing all the test runs, Mr. Aki demonstrated his mad ninja skills at the wheel without even blinking. He’d give a demo of the Evasive test at around 80 mph busting out serious turns without touching any of the cones and without a flinch (ninja reflex). This dudes crazy! I had the privilege to try this 3 times because myself and my photographer did not believe what we experienced and asked to do it again and again like little kids on a roller coaster ride!
(Ninja Aki! All bow down!)
Okay, well, after Mr. Aki showed off his mad ninja braking skills we jumped into another car to do the same test, but this time, no brakes would be used. Instead, the ESC system would kick in when it recognized over-steering and would auto compensate all the tires breaks. In a sense it was ABS for turning, making you turn correctly and not slide. This was a seriously cool feature. Personally I called it the “Auto Aki Braking System”.
(Ken, as promised, here’s your trio of pictures dashing to fix cones!…yea, we barreled over quite a few cones)
Everyone got grades, I got all 5’s but some got 3’s. Our instructor Ken rocked. I think he found us odd since I asked him a bunch of designer questions while taking pictures of him picking up our run-over cones, but I guess this is what separates the bloggers and traditional media..bloggers ask all the other questions. This was a fun day! Nothing too serious, just fun times, some questions about GM and getting to know the rest of the crew before heading to the hotel to prep for dinner.
Small facts: they crashed cars daily for testing conditions. They also crushed these test cars we drove around…yeah, I know…I was like, give me!
The Inn at St. Johns
The GM dinner was at 6:30. We arrived at the hotel around 4:30 so we had a good 2 hours to burn before dinner so I took the opportunity to check out the rest of the hotel which turned out to be an unplanned Test Drive that literally rocked! I grabbed my photographer (Eddric) and another blogger (Sharon) to walk around the hotel since it was surrounded by a golf course (I Google Earthed it prior.. yes, my inner nerd-ness).
The Inn at St Johns was a Tuscan like Spanish villa with subtle Asian accents. It was very cool but their labyrinth like hallways were confusing for awhile. The rooms were very nice…a bit European with modern comforts and mighty soft beds, high ceiling, marble bathrooms, and lots goodies to keep ya busy including a big plasma screen.(I personally drew robots on their paper cup caps) My room had high ceilings though it was also a handicap room with windows facing the front entrance which was a bit unpleasant since anyone could look right in. My photographers room had a nice view of the outside porches and European garden work. (Service note: when you checked in, they gave you a wallet sized printout of the weeks weather forecast. Nice!)
(I left various robot drawings throughout the rooms disposable objects… I dunno… I was thinking robots after driving all day)
After walking around aimlessly for a good 30 minutes I wanted to walk through the golf course. We were a bit tired so I jokingly insisted on getting some golf karts to whisk around in. I asked the concierge, and he kindly explained their affiliation with the golf course and guided me to the Golf Club house which was run by a bunch of college students. I told them we wanted to take pictures of the 27 hole course and would like to borrow some golf karts. The guy said no one was playing right now and that we could take any of the golf karts next to the window, some 30 of them. We smiled, quickly walked towards the golf karts with a happy grin, and whisked away onto the loooong trail in pure happiness.
(Who could resist)
This literally rocked! Perfect weather, no golfers to distract us, an open 27 hole golf course go-kart course, the sunset, and 3 goofballs in need of some fun after slamming on brakes for the past 3 hours . This was awesome! We also tested some of our braking skills on the 10 mph golf karts. Eddric almost flipped on over on a turn down a hill. This was priceless and mad fun!
(I had this thing about sticking my foot out for some odd reason… must be the “fun” juice kicking in)
(Here’ an Ariel view of the 27 hole golf course…I think that’s the path we took! Kick butt golf kart course! Blue dots my room)
Dinner, cocktails, and an interview with Ed Peper:
Dinner started out with a standing open gathering much like a party. GM employees, bloggers, etc walking abouts getting to know each other over drinks and simple bites of food. 30 minutes into this we were asked to sit down to start dinner at a long wide table with GM employees scattered abouts. They explained to us why we were here, what they expect out of us afterward (nothing) and that we were free to write about anything we experienced.
Ed Peper who is the General Manager of GM Chevy Division started off dinner with a 30 some minute lecture about GM’s goals, direction, and why we were here. Personally I do not like these large table conversations as it limited discussions to one especially with several GM experts in different fields unable to speak since Ed had an obvious presence that shushed others when he spoke. Anyways, lots of the talk was informative but nothing provocative. Ed seemed to talk his way around many questions even when asked the exact same questions in another format. I’m not saying he was being loosy goosey about the questions, but I sometimes wished he gave more direct simplified answers. The longer you speak does not mean the better your answer. To simplify some facts that I learned from this dinner:
– GM has lost market share in the last few years, dropping from 50% market share to 40% domestically. 40% is still huge, but they would like to gain that 10% back. My question here is: “Does GM pride Brand Value over Market Share?”
– Ed somewhat talked down on Chrysler for not having a “transferable warranty” on their cars.(if you sell your car, the warranty breaks) He made this a big deal and said this is why GM is so much better. I can understand why, but give a few other facts if you are going to down talk a competitor.
– During this same discussion, Ed talked down on Toyota and the Prius, which I love, claiming Toyota did a great job with the Prius in marketing but failed in building a car that can last. He claims they used unsustainable materials for a car that is marketed as being the most sustainable. I do not know if this is true, but my question is “where is your Hybrid car that gets 50+MPG”. He spoke about how making SUV’s more fuel efficient was more important than making small compacts more efficient since they were saving more gas, but then again, their amazing new hybrids still only get 20 MPG. Sorry, I’m guessing the Prius is saving more money and gas. Why build a car that guzzles more fuel if you don’t need one… seriously, we don’t need big SUVS unless we are dragging timber around daily. Maybe it’s just me…I have no need in one, but people in Detroit sure found use for them.
– Ed spent a good deal of time promoting GM as the most efficient and leader in sustainability in all areas. I’m not sure what is true, but I did find out later on that their manufacturing facilities are LEED certified (uber Green points).
– Personally GM seems like a very macho brand not made for women. I’m not sure what the percentage of women buy cars over men, but I know they are dominant in the electronics world. I wanted to ask Ed about GM appealing to more women but ran into this hilarious marketing exercise by GM designers to better design for women. A must read! (basically, they dressed up a bunch of designers like women, including long nails, and had them experience their cars)
Overall, Ed was a very kind person to meet open to meeting all of us. He definitely took lead in the responses, but I really would have liked to hear from other executives at the table who seemed like they wanted to talk, but could not over Ed’s voice. As for the food, the salad and soup were great, but the main courses steak and fish were…let’s just say, not as appealing.
(what an awesome day! Whooohoooo!)
(back to Black Lake, awesome!)
Day 2 (Test Driving and Lunch)
Test Driving day!!! Whooohoooo. Rain, Rain, rain… sun, fun!!!! What a sweet day to Test drive all of these cars. They gave us some safety tips, rules, pointed to a fleet of fresh cars, and said go, go, go!!! Keys were in every car and you just jumped in, flipped on the engine, and sped through the sweet 5 mile test track solo. I was like a little kid with Hotwheels, except this time, I was inside each Hotwheel zipping through tracks slamming the pedal to the metal and pushing every single button getting confused (I call this usability and intuition testing)
Some notes, the Hummer is massive (H2), the Soltice is fun, the Red Sky Line is awesome, the Corvette has major kick, the Sabb’s are comfy, the Cadillacs are tech edgy, and the hybrids are nice. (I’m not a huge truck fan, so I passed on most) I’d have to say the Corvettes blew me away power wise, though the Sabb’s and Cadillacs would be more reality cars for my preferences.
Saturn Sky Red Line
(Sky Red Line: very sweet ride, nice interior, lots of pow, and sits realllly low)
– Many of the cars had wireless key fobs, meaning, no keys to insert. You just walked in the car and pressed either a button to start the engine or you would turn a fake plastic key next to the steering wheel (Sky Red Line) which I liked more. Pushing buttons just felt odd, but maybe I’m not use to it yet. As long as I don’t have to charge my KeyFob like those wireless mouses, I’m happy using it.
– Saturn Sky Red Line and Pontiac Soltice. These cars sit low, and ya cant’s see much behind ya, but then again, the lower you sit, the faster it seems your going. It’s funny how you feel more muscle-like in either a tiny car sitting low, or a huge hummer like car sitting high, but not in a car that sits ya in the middle. Weird. I guess the grass is always greener to what you are not use to.
– I mentioned to the Cadillac person that everyone I know that owns the CTS or STS (their techy cars) has no clue to half the stuff inside. He was rather defensive, but I was trying to give him a critique with productive pointers….I don’t think he’s use to a design critiques since he’s a salesmen. The CTS is amazing, but there are several workflow issues I noticed being an interaction designer…oh well, next year hopefully. They worked with Apple on a pretty slick ipod dock, but again, I found issues here… navigating not intuitive like the ipod, but redone. The CTS had no home button to go back once. The CTS had no spinning wheel to navigate on the steering wheel, but it did on the panel. Anyhoots, I wont dive into this since it’s hard to explain this using words.
(The H3 Hummer is massssive!)
(The inside was pumped full of “I am powerful” vibes!)
The off-road course was closed thee day we were there so we rally had no opportunity to appreciate the Hummers vertical climb…next time.
– The Corvette had a press button to open and close the door. It was cool, but I like shiny metallic door handles. Maybe make the buttons higher end, not just plastic rubber buttons. Also, it did make me feel odd for a moment because the relationship to a button is not the same as a handle. Handles seem more mechanical, and buttons seem more like computers. I don’t want my car to lock up like a computer and not let me out. What happens if the battery dies…am I stuck inside… this is just a perceptual thing… and I trust handles over buttons in cars.
(My photographer somehow ended up getting two cones stuck underneath the Corvette while blistering through the course doing donuts and what not during the last run of the day)
(Our course!) Blue=Starting point. Green=Stunt driving. Red=Test Driving Course
Lunch with Designers
After some fun loving driving, a bunch of GM designers stepped in to have lunch with us (it was the exact same buffet we had from yesterday..uhmm..diversity please). I sat down with Wade Bryant who is a design manager of interiors including the GM Volt. Wades the one that brought to my attention that GM’s manufacturing facilities were LEED certified here in Detroit, but he actually never really knew how. This is what bugged me a bunch cause we were suppose to leave to the airport in 30 minutes and we never got to see the manufacturing facilities.(boooooo!) Anyhoots, Wade was a pleasure to speak to and in fact knew a few of my co-workers (David), but mainly cause we shared the same last cool name, Tang. I forget half the things I spoke to about with Wade but a few follow up emails to him are to come.
Done! Thats was a quick trip out from Boston! I’m exhausted, tired, and going to yet another conference in NYC in 2 days (Gadgetoff.com), hence writing this report a bit late.
Overall, GM seems to be steering towards some smart directions, though they also seem to be seeking all directions without defining what the industry should be going after. Their marketing efforts have been blazing though the media channels for Cadillac and Pontiac recently, but hopefully they seek the more non traditional channels and look at the simple details. Personally, I really don’t like the Pontiac or Chevy Logo, I think they need to appeal to women more, if they are leaders in the sustainable world make it known, take risk even though you are a legacy brand, let designers rule for a year and see what happens, focus on compact cars and less on trucks, keep bringing in non-car reviewers like myself to experience GM, and don’t try to hide anything…. I’m still bitter about the Hummers being removed because the Green Bloggers arrived… that’s BS, they know about it, let them experience it. Again, thank you GM for this experience!