GM's Design Team Looks to the Future

The irony is undeniable. While General Motors Corp. was winding through bankruptcy proceedings this summer, its products were starring in the biggest blockbuster of the season. "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" features warrior robots from outer space, turning themselves into -- what else? -- Chevrolets.

For its many critics, GM's promise to rebuild itself from a bankrupt relic into the innovative carmaker of the future is no less fantastical than the transformations on screen.


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If GM succeeds, much of the credit will go to its design team -- artists who must ignore the financial problems of today in order to pave the way for the company's viability tomorrow.

Their boss is GM's vice president of global design Ed Wellburn, who famously sent a letter to GM at the tender age of 8, begging for advice on how to become a designer. Fewer than 20 years later, he started working for GM and he now spearheads its design unit with the same boyish passion.

Located in Warren, Mich., the cryptically named "Studio X," which is the design team's inner sanctum, is modeled after the top-secret workshop of legendary automotive designer Harley Earl, who pioneered industry-changing classics like the Corvette.

While the designs have changed, the extreme secrecy has not. "I've got to tell you, there are very few people who work for General Motors who have ever been in Studio X. I'd say maybe 20 or 30 people over the years," Wellburn said.

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Like a car lover's version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, Studio X is a cauldron of ingenuity and secrecy.

Throughout the studio, new ideas are manifested in a variety of forms, from clay models of the designers' most nascent ideas to advanced prototypes kept tightly under wraps.

One of the more well-reviewed cars to come out of Studio X in recent years is the new Chevrolet Camaro. Its success hints at what seems to be a bigger trend: Retro-styling combined with more modern features and enhanced drivability.

Although the Camaro is considered an American classic, the new version was designed by a Korean, engineered by Australians and built by Canadians. For some people, such collaboration is indicative of the lack of passion and ingenuity that has hampered the U.S. car industry of late. For others, it's merely a sign that a multi-national approach is the way of the future.

"It's a global world now. ... It's a much bigger world now and we can take the expertise from all those different areas and bring it together," Chevrolet product manager Cheryl Pilcher said.

One of GM's most promising product ideas is "V-to-V" technology, which would enable cars to sense other vehicles or pedestrians and thereby prevent collisions. But there's a catch: The other cars and pedestrians must also have purchased the V-to-V device in order for the technology to work.

In contrast, the Chevy Volt is much closer to being a market reality. Considered by some people to be GM's "moon shot," the product could potentially leapfrog popular hybrids, like the Toyota Prius when it hits showrooms next year, analysts say .

Wellburn said the Volt's sleek, accessible, yet stylish, design "was very much influenced by the iPod."

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