General Motors is a company that represents both the endless possibilities of automotive technology, and the “old guard” that often seems just behind of trends in innovation. Under the reign of CEO Dan Akerson, GM is being proactive, and a small team of analysts has been assigned to study market “disrupter” Tesla Motors to see how it might affect GM’s business.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, vice chairman of GM Steve Girsky said that Akerson thinks “…Tesla could be a big disrupter if we’re not careful.” Girsky rightly notes that history is full of companies that failed to innovate and were ultimately wiped out by upstarts like Tesla. Kodak, which ignored digital photography until it was too late, is one such company.
Akerson had made his disdain for GM’s corporate culture well known, and he is pushing his engineers to develop and patent technologies customers will actually pay for. GM has come up with some truly innovative and great ideas, but many of them never go beyond the drawing board or concept. One such idea is the hydrogen “skateboard” chassis that debuted in 2002. Tesla Motors took that same idea and applied it to its electric vehicles, allowing the Tesla Model S chassis to underpin next-gen vehicles like the Model X SUV.
In fact, Tesla Motors has managed to take a product many people wrote off as too expensive and limited, the electric car, and built a car company from the ground up. Grisky notes that if you ignore a company like Tesla, it has the possibility of taking a goliath like GM unawares. The Tesla Model S has outsold the Chevy Volt by a wide margin, which probably has some alarm bells ringing at GM, and Akerson is right to be concerned with Tesla’s ability to disrupt the old guard. Plans to cut the Volt’s price by up to $10,000 will help
There are plenty of lessons Akerson and GM can learn from Tesla, but this feels a bit like an old man listening to rap music in a bid to become “hip” and better relate to his grandchildren. Things could get…awkward.