When the first-generation Chevrolet Volt was developed from 2007-2011, GM prided itself on its “transparency” but today it posted a press release touting how it conceals the development of that plug-in car’s successor.
“The styling of the next-generation Chevrolet Volt is one of the automotive world’s best-kept secrets,” said Chevrolet communications in reference to its black and white swirl camouflaged test cars. “Keeping customers and media eager to see the successor to the groundbreaking original at bay until the new Volt debuts at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January is tricky business.”
But it’s not just the styling that is concealed. Everything is concealed except we know a new Volt is under development and, as noted, it will be revealed after three more months.
Of course many automakers camouflage their cars, but the policy and tone now that GM has moved on from bankruptcy and restructuring contrasts with the words of the Volt’s original media representative spoken at the EDTA conference in Washington, D.C., in 2011.
“Our communications strategy beginning in 2007 was one that was very simple,” said Volt representative Rob Peterson, “For a company that was short on credibility and long on engineering talent, we were going to be as transparent as possible and that’s when the journey for the Volt truly began.”
Even though it could be uncomfortable for some traditionalists, Peterson said, the new policy was necessary.
“Now that is a challenging strategy for the people like Tony Posawatz [former head of Volt line, and also in attendance there] and the development team to have a communications person stand by their side; want to showcase the wins and sometimes the stumbles along the way,” he said, “But it was needed in order for us to actually succeed. Because our transparency is what built the credibility along the journey the past five years.”
Today’s GM press release instead touts how GM’s news is there is no news, and this is a very deliberate effort.
“If it were up to me it would be a shoebox driving down the road,” said Lionel Perkins, GM camouflage engineer. “The design team wants us to cover more of the vehicle and the engineering team needs to have enough of the vehicle’s weight and aero exposed so that the tests in the development process are consistent with the product that will come to market.”
General Motors observes it does have the largest battery lab in North America, has tasked a watch team on Tesla, says it will be a major player in the electrification of the automobile, but its interests are best served by secrecy.
And to be sure, the prospect of cannibalizing existing products by promising better cars on the horizon is an ever present dilemma any automaker faces.
As it is, Chevrolet put together a summary on how its new Volt is being camouflaged. It is engineers, not designers, who make these black and white swirled disguises to test pre-production vehicles in their natural environments.
“It’s critical for us to make sure we’re listening to customer wants for the next generation Volt, and the only way to do that is to be out in the wild, while keeping the design under wraps,” said Volt Chief Engineer Andrew Farah (pictured).
Some of the tricks of the trade:
• Black and white patterns – The color scheme creates a shadow that hides vehicle design elements.
• 3D – Layered camouflage throws off onlookers, but has to be applied without interrupting airflow around the car.
• Swirls – In the old days of car camouflage, the design relied mainly on a grid pattern, but over the years engineers discovered that grids are difficult to realign if a piece is removed to make a change to the car. Swirl patterns better hide such developments.
• Bubble wrap – Camouflage can be made from many different materials including plastics, vinyl and foam. Good, old bubble wrap is a lightweight, easily attachable three-dimensional material used to confuse prying eyes.
“The camouflage package on the next-generation Volt was started six months in advance of early development,” says Chevrolet. “Every vehicle is different and tricks are constantly updated to keep spy photographers and the curious guessing.”
It would now appear that if there were ever an internal battle of wills at GM over the need for greater disclosure versus secrecy, the policy has veered toward keeping tight wraps on the info – and do they now want to be congratulated for it?
This contrasts with news this month by Mercedes-Benz which announced years in advance it will make plug-in hybrid variants for all its models.
But the handwriting was on the wall at least back to 2010 when the “old GM” was a fresh memory, and the “new GM” was finding its feet.
Dr. Lyle Dennis, founder of GM-Volt.com, was perceptive to pick up on that just before the Volt was launched and documented a shift in GM’s public relations policy as he credited its initial transparency as having given his Volt information site a huge leg up.
But the curtain was drawing tighter, he said, in a post titled “GM May Not be as Transparent About Next Generation Volt,” with an excerpt following:
“We will not be as transparent on the Gen 2 VOLT and VOLTec offerings in the future product plan,” said Volt director Tony Posawatz. ”We will continue to share our learnings as VOLT is launched and rolled out and people need to educated on the virtues of electrified transportation.”
Rob Peterson of Volt communications was a little less sure.
“We’re still trying to get Gen1 to the dealers,” said Peterson. ”We don’t want to confuse the message,” he said by discussing too much the next version of the car.
In due time, though, GM will feed us news.
“We’ll talk about Gen 2 as it becomes appropriate,” he said.
Today the Volt is a halo car that is mainly marketed as a “niche” product to California and at tech events.
GM hopes to change all that with the new car. It is going to great lengths to keep it under wraps, so we’ll just have to wait and see.