[Detroit River looking at Canada. Photo by Shel]
The guy next to me on the flight to Detroit wanted to know why I was headed to his hometown. I told him I was with FastCompany TV and I was visiting GM & Ford. He scowled. "Another trash Detroit story," he muttered, picking up a Grisham novel and ignoring me for the remainder of the flight. From the airport, I hopped into a taxi where the driver told me he had worked on the line at Ford for 18 years before getting laid off last year. He asked me why I was in Detroit and I told him. "Another trash Detroit story," he muttered and we drove the remainder of the way in silence.
People from Detroit have become accustomed to journalists writing about the burned out buildings you see along the freeway from the Airport into the city. They're tired of comments about their main industry in atrophy.
There was no use telling these redundant skeptics that I had come in search of good news. The Detroit-in-trouble story has been done and done again and is old news. I was here to see what was going on in social media at Ford & GM. My best story was to be able to report on a great turnaround taking place. Being the first to report that--if true--would make me a bit of prophet.
In fact, after one day at GM and another at Ford, I found numerous glimmers of hope. I saw uses of virtual reality (VR) and machine-human integration that persuaded me on a personal and inexpert level that happier days and better cars were in Detroit's near-term future. Perhaps, or perhaps, as a non-expert in automotive these were just diamonds in coal mines.
At both companies, I also found small bands of social media champions. People who have at least sipped from the same Kool Aid bowl where I have immersed my head. I perceived these two small teams to be pushing huge boulders up mountains laced with the barbed wire barriers of process and culture.
One of these team members confided in me that he often gets frustrated, but every day when he goes home, he realizes that he has inched just a little further up that mountain and that makes it worth it. I admire his tenacity and his patience.
I saw some amazing and impressive things, some social, that go beyond your everyday blogs, podcasts and Tweets. I saw people talking and collaborating with each other through technology. I was impressed with GM's design center, where I saw how ideas become realities through a process that includes machine CAD, robotics and artists working in clay. I learned how a car, designed exclusively on machines may create a vehicle that is sterile to people, whose interior colors are just a bit off for human comfort. "We use computers, of course, but we need clay to give our models life," I saw models of some very hot Cadillacs of tomorrow that are mere concepts today. I was impressed not just by the model, but by the passion of the Design Center guy who escorted me.
[Cheryl Bruins Rozier. Photo by Shel]
Over at Ford, I got to tour the Virtual Build Center, which is equally impressive. I interviewed Cheryl Bruins Rozier, it's manager in sort of a war room at the Center's nexus.There, the companies ecosystem, sits and reviews screen after screen after screen of ever weld point on a new design. They use VR to determine whether a weld or screw twist is better done by robot or human. There are cameras that allow engineers in remote locations to see what is being viewed projected in the room, and join the conversation.
I would love to have included video footage of both these experiences. After all, I was there as a video reporter. But in both cases, I was not allowed to record what I saw and was being told. Both companies have promised to send me B-Roll, but my guess is that it will be too polished for the handheld style that I will be using at FastCompany.tv. Rozier, did all a CAD drawing a Ford wheel, but it hardly had the complexity and visually and collaboratively striking qualities of what I was allowed to view, but not record.
At GM, I was permitted this "stolen" click of GM Social Media operative
[GM's Natalie Johnson in VR Center. Photo by Shel]
Natalie Johnson in the GM 'CAVE' immersive environment studio. The company uses CAVE to simulate what an actual ride in design concept would look like. CAVE reduces prototyping by automating virtual environments. An old Chevy Tahoe, I was told, required GM to build 279 physical models costing between $15 K and $1 million each. CAVE reduces a new concept's model 50 or fewer models educing scrap, costs and time-to-market significantly.
The blank wall you are seeing above looks a lot different when it is not grayed out. Natalie is sitting in a driver's seat. In front of her, there's a steering wheel, a dashboard and windshield, precisely replicating one's they will build once the VR refines the design. As was true at Ford's virtual manufacturing facility ecosystem team members in remote locations can see precisely what the virtual driver is seeing and experiencing.
(BTW Natalie is one of the GM social media team, one of the ones who 'gets it' and spends time pushing boulders up mountains.)
What I did manage to capture on video that I will be using in a couple of weeks at FastCompany.tv is footage of me looking absolutely goofy under a VR helmet at Ford, where I got in and out of a virtual car prototype, while what I was seeing got projected onto a screen. It felt very much the way I remember 1968, except that others could see what I saw and this is helping them design cars better.
The trip's highlight was my 30-minute interview with Bob Lutz, GM's controversial vice chairman. In 2005, I had interviewed him for Naked Conversations and had been impressed with his candor. I still am. Shortly before my arrival there, Lutz had set foot into a PR bucket by having been quoted as saying that he thought global warming may be "a crock." What some coverage omitted was that he emphasized that what he thought personally would not change GM's commitment to "removing cars" from the environmental conversation by removing dependence on fossil fuels. What was also omitted in some coverage was the fact that Lutz had inspired and spearheaded the soon-to-be-real Volt, touted as Detroit's greenest car.
Most of my talk was about social media and why he had started blogging to begin with as well as his impressive vision for social media's role in GM's future. The man drips charisma and FastCompany will probably post almost all of my 30-minute interview with him.
What's my takeaway from Detroit? I'm not certain. GM has some great blogs going. When I made entries over on Twitter about my trip to Detroit, three of their four-member social media team were quick to join the conversation. Ford, to date, has no blogs. It has embraced what is called a social media press release which makes it easier for traditional and online media journalist to get precisely the information they're after. But they have yet to blog and no one in the company joined my little Twitversation.
Both companies reinforced the thoughts I expressed in my recent "two camps" post. At Ford and GM there are small groups of social media champions. They ave a passion for it. They understand the value of conversations with customers, partners and ecosystems. At GM, in the form of Lutz, they have the highest ranking member of any enterprise occasionally blogging in the form of Lutz.
But they are minorities in entrenched cultures who are still embracing the way it has always been done, who do not yet understand that transparency is the best way to restore customer trust; who see social media as yet another way to push message out, rather than to listen to what people have to tell them.
As Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point subtitle declares: "Little things make a big difference." There are lots of little things going on in social media. At both companies, these things are integrated with two sincere dedications to making better cars than they have made in recent years and whether or not big differences occur remains to be seen.