Friday, July 10, 2009

The New GM: Maker Of Mobile Devices

Wilmot, New Hampshire. It is hard to think of a more wrong-headed take on the new GM than today's Times report on how a new muscle car will save the company. Imagine someone writing that a new Bee Gees will save Warner Music; imagine a government stupid enough to be 2/3 owner in such a venture, especially a government committed to reducing global warming and greening the economy.

In fact, the government gets one real prize with the new GM and that's Voltec, the working name for the electric power-train that is being integrated into the Chevy Volt, Cadillac Converj, and other vehicles scheduled for release over the next couple of years; a power-train whose 40-mile range will be extended by a 1.4 liter engine, acting as a dynamo when the battery pack runs down. (The tough little engine, by the way, was snared from Opel before its sale, a good example of finding components from within the global GM group, something the company will have to be great at in the future.)

I'll be saying a lot more about this electric vehicle and its commercial "ecosystem" in the weeks ahead (I'm writing a feature for Inc., and will be blogging about it with the magazine's permission). Suffice it to say for now that Voltec has a fighting chance to remake GM the way cell phones remade Motorola in the 1980s (a failing consumer electronics company in the early 1970s). Indeed, GM has a chance to be the first to reconceive the car as a the ultimate mobile device, embedded in both a rich information network and a smart electric grid; the first, that is, to set standards for the operating system that will manage the battery pack, and the communications protocols that will allow millions of electric vehicles to syndicate information and communicate their requirements to smarter (hence, greener) public utilities.

In short, GM has a chance to become the software powerhouse of the newest new economy, not just a manufacturing and assembling company (margins from these activities will drop to near zero, as with the manufacture of laptops and cell phone handsets), but primarily a design hub and anchor for hundreds of new software solutions companies that will focus on the tiers of communication the electric car portends: battery-pack to vehicle, vehicle to electric utility, and utility to sources of renewable energy. (Think of GM's OnStar's global positioning platform migrating to a communications platform that collects and interprets information about the timing of recharging of vehicles for power companies; think of, say, Accenture working with a half dozen start-ups to smarten Duke Energy's grid in a way that communicates with OnStar.) This would mean tens of thousands of new economy jobs, and little companies going global, much like Qualcomm did. It means utterly transforming what GM means by a supply-chain.

Of course, GM could blow it. Apple was hardly the leading contender to launch a digital music player and, hence, come to dominate new generation mobile PDAs. For GM to win, it will have to think of the car in the context of its various networks, much like Apple did with the iPod. The fact that the government both owns GM and also has the capacity to create convergent standards for environmental and safety reasons should give GM a great initial advantage. But none of this will happen if GM management, and the business press aiming to keep it honest, thinks about (or with) muscle.