February 9, 2017 by Douglas Black
Today’s luncheon, part of the Chicago Auto Show Media Preview which I always find enjoyable, the speaker usually offers insight into a huge industry from someone near the top of the management mountain, and the food is much better than average. This year the featured keynote address was given by none other than the President of the General Motors Company, Dan Ammann, who is responsible for managing the company’s business operations around the world, the global Chevrolet and Cadillac brand organizations, global product planning, new business development and GM Financial.
Ammann stuck to his script for fifteen minutes, emphasizing GM’s dedication to building “cleaner, smarter, safer, and more efficient than ever”, but the Q and A that followed was less than enlightening.
Answers to questions posed by Keith Cardoza, who presided over the special meeting of The Economic Club of Chicago, were carefully crafted at best, and somewhat evasive at worst. I presume this should be expected from an investment banker turned commander of a worldwide corporation in these politically charged times.
Regarding the Trump administration’s threat of tariffs and the ‘bring manufacturing jobs back’ saber rattling, Mr. Ammann would only say that GM is already making big investments in U.S. jobs, and would welcome a relaxation of regulations from the federal government.
When asked about the Trump administration’s talk of big infrastructure investment and if he felt those investments should include ‘smart roads’ to accommodate the evolution toward intelligent automotive technology, Ammann replied that GM will not wait, but rather would focus on technology that works with the existing transportation environment.
Mr. Ammann would not comment specifically on the direction of the industry as a whole – You’ll have to ask them, he said – and was rather tight-lipped about the future of GM in regard to a shift from a traditional consumer ownership business model toward service-based products.
He did say, however, that low utilization of vehicles and high cost of ownership by younger consumers, especially in densely populated urban centers like Chicago, and the ubiquity of the mobile device, is a trend worth noting.
“We (the industry) are changing because customer behavior is changing. The next five years will see more change (in the automotive industry) than the past fifty years,” said Ammann.
One clue as to where GM is going is their recent position in the ride-sharing Lyft, Inc. (Ammann sits on Lyft’s board) and the machine intelligence start-up Cruise Automation, a firm leading the charge toward autonomous vehicles. GM recently launched its own MAVEN Car Sharing Program in Chicago, offering vehicles exclusively to Lyft drivers by the hour or day, and MAVEN Home, making a fleet of vehicles available for building complex owners. Autonomous and driverless technology will emerge relatively soon, said Mr. Ammann, within ride share fleet environments where customers are already vetted and familiar.
“The Bolt AV (Autonomous Vehicle) is an absolute game changer,” he said of the GM product under development, presumably for fleets and the ride sharing environment. “Safety, convenience, and quality of life” are the keys to driverless technology, he added, and that the Bolt AV will hit all three buttons. GM’s recent forays into the electric vehicle market were the Volt (versions one and two), and the Bolt EV which is very popular, according to Ammann.
Cardoza asked about the tricky ethical questions posed by driverless vehicles, potential injurious accidents for one, and the GM executive would only say that “ninety-five percent (of accidents) are caused by human error” and that GM was committed to a validation program for safety.
When asked what car he personally drives, there was no hesitation in his answer. “The Camaro ZL1 – fastest on the market,” said Ammann with a smile. No surprise coming from an automotive titan who is also a certified industry pool test driver at the Nörburgring Nordschleife racetrack in Germany.
Later in the day, MotorWeek announced the Chevrolet Bolt EV as the 2017 Drivers’ Choice Awards “Best of the Year”. Less careful about his wording than was GM’s Ammann, MotorWeek’s creator and host John Davis described the Chevrolet electric vehicle as “not an ecofreak-mobile just for greenies”.
But the Bolt EV still relies on a federal tax credit in its affordability equation, an incentive in place during the past administration but unclear in a promised Trump tax overhaul. Further, the product is not yet available in all 50 states, but “will be by the end of this year” per the Chevrolet executive accepting the award.
Dan Ammann is a member of the board of directors of Lyft, Inc. as well as Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company. Prior to joining GM, Mr. Ammann was managing director and head of Industrial Investment Banking for Morgan Stanley, where he was instrumental in many high-profile assignments including advising GM during its 2009 restructuring, part of the Obama administration’s so-called auto industry bail-out.
Douglas Black is a futurist, historian, writer and photographer in Chicago. He also writes historical fiction under the name Duke Pierce Reade, including the online serial anthology THE RED AND THE GOLD found on Channillo.com