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GM learning lesson, outpacing Tesla in race for self-driving cars

Dec 2, 2017

The global auto industry descended on La-La Land this week, and the biggest buzz came from – wait for it – General Motors.

Not because its electrified nemesis, Elon Musk’s Tesla, didn’t carve out a corner of the Los Angeles Convention Center. It did. By parking a long-awaited Model 3 compact – in the corner. America’s greenest state is Tesla country.

But even belief bordering on religious faith in Tesla can’t change the fact that grubby ol’ GM appears to be beating Musk’s baby to the autonomous punch.

Imagine that.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

While Musk takes precious time to tout his electric semi-truck and hustle cash deposits for a new Roadster unavailable for years, GM brass is backing promises to its investors with reality. Among them: a plan to field a driverless ride-hailing fleet by 2019.

That means the dopes whose company needed rescuing by American taxpayers less than a decade ago are angling to take the lead in the autonomous car race. And unlike Tesla, GM has decades of practice integrating technology into cars and building them.

Advantage Detroit.

Oh, and GM says cost reductions, improved battery development and increased range between charges should make the still-tiny EV business profitable. That’s more than cash incinerator Tesla can claim nowadays, as investors are starting to realize.

The investor money that fuels the auto industry, and will power its driverless future, depends far more on deeds than words. It values actual performance over glib performing, cash generation over voracious cash consumption.

That’s a language GM CEO Mary Barr understands, no matter how many times Musk derides Detroit’s tired conventions, culture and its people.

Look, winning in this industry is measured in two ways: with products that actually work and with the numbers that keep score. GM learned the hard way that over-promising and under-delivering is a recipe for failure. Sooner or later, credibility is shot, and getting it back is hard. Very hard.

Just ask Ford Motor. Nearly 20 years ago, the Blue Oval’s Lincoln was America’s No. 1 luxury brand. Today, it’s eighth, an also-ran in its own country.  

Ford’s response: use the LA Show to reintroduce – again – a new model naming scheme for Lincoln. It’s ditching the German-inspired alpha-numerics for old names like Continental and Nautilus, apparently inspired by Jules Verne.

Instead of taking on the Germans at their own game or reviving its cutthroat competition with Cadillac Lincoln is choosing to compete with itself in the United States and China, mostly. Meaning it’s scaling back ambition to something it stands a chance of achieving.

Detroit’s past generation of luxury pretension is littered with unfulfilled promises. With cynical attempts to buy credibility. With pledges to go global that never materialize – all of which exacted a price this town’s automakers are still paying.

GM and Ford appear to finally be learning the lesson – which is more than can be said for Tesla, the nation’s newest automaker.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.