Is Buying a GM Vehicle Good for the Robotics Industry?


By Jeff Burnstein, President, RIA

For years, General Motors has been the largest user of robots in North America, possibly even the world. They installed the first robot in the U.S. The company is inextricably tied to the history of the robotics industry. So, does it follow that if I drive a GM vehicle I’m helping the robotics industry?

For years, GM’s support of robotics hasn’t been a good enough reason for me to get behind the wheel of a GM car. I’ve driven Ford and Chrysler products, as well as some Japanese nameplates over the past two decades. All of these companes use robots, too. And, depite my childhood bias towards GM (my father loved Buicks & Cadillacs best of all and those were the cars I grew up with), I haven’t driven a GM car for at least 15 years.

Why? Because like many Americans, my experience with GM in the 1980s was a bad one and it turned me off. The first car I ever purchased on my own was a new Pontiac Grand Am. I loved it at first. Until it became a rust bucket within four or five years. Until it’s engine blew at less than 70,000 miles. Until I was spending a huge amount on auto repairs each year while my friends were driving gleaming, seemingly defect-free imports. This wasn’t just perception, it was reality.

I think about this a lot because a similar story is told about robotics and machine vison. Some early users were turned off for good and never came back to see the improvements made to the technology. Today’s robots and vision systems are extremely reliable and users are reaping impressive benefits. RIA and our sister trade group AIA fight hard to convince companies that were turned off years ago that they need to take another look at these critical technologies if they want to successfully compete in the global marketplace.

Which brings me back to my car choice. Last month, it was time to find a new car. Cash for clunkers didn’t help me since I now lease my cars (in part based on not wanting to continue my close relationship with the auto mechanic who serviced my old Grand Am!).

So, when I heard GM was leasing again, I decided to add them to my shopping list (in part to try and help them during this difficult time), but not really expecting to find anything that could compete with Ford, Toyota, Honda, etc.

Guess what? I’m now driving a 2010 Buick Lacrosse CXS and love it! It was the best of the cars I looked at by far. Lease rates were competitive. It’s built at the GM Fairfax Plant in Kansas City which uses lots of robots. And the CXS version has the same engine as the Cadillac CTS (my father, who passed away three years ago, would be thrilled!).

And this hammered home a point to me that I stress all the time to potential members of RIA and AIA. “Don’t join just because you want to help us, join because it’s in your best interest. If we offer value that exceeds your investment, we want you to join. If we don’t, then we understand why you aren’t joining.” Our job here is to create so much value that everyone in our industry wants to be a member.

I now think the “new GM” understands this. People won’t buy GM cars just because they are an American company, or just because they are currently in need of help. And, it’s unlikely many will do it because it’s good for the robotics industry because as I said, other automakers use robots, too.

GM has to build great cars that people want to drive. And, if the Buick Lacrosse I’m now driving is any indication (or the Buick Enclave, the GMC Terrain, and the Cadillac CTS, to name three others I test drove), GM is doing just that.

I’m not going to suggest that you  make GM your next vehicle choice. All I’m going to say is put them on your shopping list. Just as I tell people who were turned off by robots and/or vision systems in the past, take another look — it’s in your best interest!

And, to provide full disclosure, I also have a 2009 Mercury Mariner that my wife drives. Ford is doing an excellent job, too. If I hadn’t gone with the Buick Lacrosse, I likely would have gone with the new Ford Taurus.

GM and Ford aren’t the companies they were a while back, they are better. And, long term, I”m hoping that’s going to be good for the robotics industry as well, as people start buying more of their cars and they start investing more heavily in automation to keep up with demand!

What car do you drive and what influenced your choice”?

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4 Responses to Is Buying a GM Vehicle Good for the Robotics Industry?

  1. David Siedal says:

    Jeff,
    I too have driven imports (Toyota & Honda) for the last 20 years for the reasons you mentioned. The Buick Lacrosse is the first American car that has caught my eye that I would consider buying. It is a really sharp looking car. I also think GM’s mechanicals have significantly improved as well based on rental vehicles over the last few years.

    David Siedal
    Lockheed Martin
    817-777-8574

  2. Earl Raynal, Jr says:

    Jeff,

    My family has a long history in the car business; my father was part of a family owned automobile dealership (Dodge/Chrysler/Plymouth) on the East Side of Detroit that began as a Hudson dealership way back when ….. well, when the Hudson was being built. I worked at the dealership in the late 1970’s, and watched closely as North American car quality, design and performance was met and then surpassed by foreign competition.

    It wasn’t so much that Domestic Automakers’ quality slipped; they just didn’t keep up with hungrier and craftier and more disciplined foreign car makers.

    When the domestic automakers finally hit rock bottom, culminating in one of them filing for bankruptcy, one being cast off by its German owner and having to find a white night investor in order to survive, one having to mortgage everything including their logo to keep the doors open, and two of them having to take unrivaled government bailouts, they finally defeated the culture of pride, and dare I say arrogance, that permeated their organizations from Union to Board level and slowed their progress in making the sweeping business changes necessary to compete globally.

    In order to prevent their loss of market share from the mid-80’s up to now they could have simply copied the foreign competition’s products – exactly as the Japanese automakers did to us back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Duh!

    But that is all history. The cars from the North American manufacturers I have seen and driven lately are really world class cars in every respect – design, fit, finish, performance.

    In my business travels over the past 25+ years, I’ve driven several hundred different US and foreign cars as rental cars (though I’ve been stubborn and managed to avoid purchasing a foreign car based on principal) and saw the quality/design/performance gap continue to widen. About 3-4 years ago I saw the tide begin to change. The most recent Chevrolet Malibu was a harbinger of things to come. Then came the Buick Lucerne – one of the quietest cars I’ve ever been in, followed by the classy Buick Lacrosse. Chrysler had sat on its laurels for quite a while with its minivan, but the newly restyled version is the best ever and now rivals the vaunted Honda minivan (without the ridiculously malformed dashboard of the Honda) – it is even being manufactured and branded for a (gasp) Japanese automaker! Chrysler’s Sebring is a really solid sedan with impressive highway mileage and affordable sticker price. Ford has put some head turning designs out on the street lately. Its Edge was an instant hit and new Taurus and Flex have been great hits with their target market and are introducing “connectivity” to automobile technology enthusiasts. The much maligned Cadillac over the last 20 years has regained its prideful place at the head of North American automobiles, this time underlined with performance in its XLR, cutting edge design in its STS and comfort in its DTS monikers.

    A while ago I was in a bar in Germany with a bunch of young college kids, playing speed darts and drinking beer. The conversation got around to cars and what kind of car each of us would most like to own and drive. I quickly learned that a BMW Z3 is considered a “chick car” in Germany. The favorite car of all the college kids in the home of what are widely considered to be the most revered automobiles in the world? The car all of those kids wanted to possess, and drive on the Autobahn? The car those kids thought would most impress their friends and their girlfriends? A Ford Mustang. (This was, of course, before the new Camaro was available.)

    I’m with you 100% Jeff. It is time to look again at cars from domestic automakers. In addition to improved styling, reliability, fit and finish, there should be a favorable price difference due to the weakened dollar and the new cost structure in place within domestic automakers’ and suppliers’ manufacturing plants. I believe you have to really reach now to find a valid reason to purchase a foreign car.

    I no longer have any interest in any domestic car companies – except that I believe a strong domestic car industry makes for good economics domestically. The good news is I no longer have to rely solely on the good old red white and blue to make an argument to buy American; it truly is time for North American automobile buyers to start looking locally again!

    Earl Raynal, Jr

  3. Mary Henige says:

    Jeff,

    As a GM employee of 23 years I want to thank you for putting our vehicles on your test drive list and in ultimately buying a Buick LaCrosse. I’m delighted that you gave us a second chance and am thrilled you’re pleased with your decision. That’s truly all we’re asking, is to be put into the consideration set again. We’re working hard every day to earn trust.

    Thought you’d be interested to know that my first job at GM was as an exhibit representative at GM’s World of Motion display at EPCOT Center. As you know, “Tiger” the robot was a key element of the exhibit. I was “schooled” early in the importance of robotics!

    Mary Henige, Communications Director
    @maryhenige

  4. Jeff Burnstein says:

    I’m delighted to learn the Lacrosse is a finalist for the North American Car of the Year!

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