A few decades ago American automakers were caught off guard by the rise of the Japanese after having been dismissive of them, but GM CEO Dan Akerson does not intend to let that happen with Tesla Motors.
According to a Bloomberg interview with GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, the executive says his boss has assigned a team to study how it could be threatened by Tesla Motors and Elon Musk.
“He thinks Tesla could be a big disrupter if we’re not careful,” Girsky said of Akerson. “History is littered with big companies that ignored innovation that was coming their way because you didn’t know where you could be disrupted.”
Tesla is already benefiting from a former GM NUMMI plant that was a joint venture with Toyota and now Tesla is in partnership with Toyota innovating from a place GM left behind.
And Tesla is building its Model S and pending Model X on a “skateboard” chassis GM designed in 2002 for its fuel cell vehicles that have yet to come to market.
“In the old days, they would’ve said, ‘It’s a bunch of laptop batteries and don’t worry about it and blah, blah, blah,’” Girsky said. Akerson’s “view of the world is this kind of thing can change, can impact our organization. It may not be in his lifetime here, but it will be in somebody’s lifetime. And we need to be prepared.”
Akerson is described also as generally dismissive of his own company’s culture – a company which the former telecom executive took the helm of as part of the restructuring led by the U.S. government.
GM is not short on talent or money for research and development, but Akerson was quoted as being a wet blanket at a GM celebration of its innovations. Instead of cheer-leading, he observed so many innovations GM has come up with have never seen the light of day for all the trouble people went through to develop the potentially marketable ideas.
“We had people with 20 and 30 patents,” Bloomberg noted Akerson told a crowd in Houston this year. “I was kind of a downer. I said, ‘How many have we commercialized? How many are in our cars?’ None.”
Akerson has decried GM’s so a called “committee culture” and its “fiefdoms” but the implications are GM is not out of those bad-old-days woods quite yet, even if it does point to its technological innovations such as the Chevy Volt, Cadillac ELR, and Spark EV.
Among these, the Cadillac is still pending, and he Spark is just launching to a limited market. Only the Volt has been in production long enough to establish a following and track record, and of late the Tesla Model S – thanks in part to a backlog of orders – has been outselling the Volt although it costs twice as much or more.
And pictured in the lead photo, the Spark EV is the only pure electric car GM yet is marketing, and for now only to Oregon and California. To say it is not in the same league as what Tesla offers is more than a mere understatement.
But now GM is saying it does not want to be left behind.
Not clear from the Girsky interview is what GM will do now that it is formally focused on an innovator in its midst that in ways is already running circles around it – and with a limited budget, but making up for it with lots of chutzpah and cleverness.
GM does have many advantages as a global giant, and is working on innovations that it keeps out of the public view, but Akerson is demanding more.
That GM is so concerned about an upstart could be seen as telling. Tables have turned before, and in today’s environment, it appears the potential for that is as ripe or riper than it has ever been.