General Motors’ Master Designer Makes a Lane for Next Generation

Ed Welburn discusses changes in the industry and the pipeline for African Americans

General Motors' Vice President of Global Design, Edward T. Welburn

As General Motors‘ Vice President of Global Design, Edward T. Welburn is currently the highest-ranking African American in the auto industry. The 60-year-old graduate of Howard University has spearheaded the design of many of GM’s best-selling vehicles, including the Chevrolet Camaro, Cadillac CTS and Buick LaCrosse.

BLACK ENTERPRISE recently spoke with Welburn following the Los Angeles Auto Show where GM unveiled the CUE (Cadillac User Experience), an onboard information/entertainment system the automaker says brings the functions of tablet computers and smartphones to the driving experience. Here’s what Welburn had to say:

BlackEnterprise.com: Many of the new vehicles shown at the LA Auto Show seem to be bolder in design, less cookie cutter than in the past. Is that a result of designers like yourself having greater influence in General Motors than in past years?

Welburn: Well, I can only speak for General Motors and it’s a couple of things. First off, the recognition by the leaders of our company of how important design really is in the success of the company. And it’s a very complex auto industry with so many brands [so] a brand needs to make a significant statement to be recognized in the industry. The leadership at General Motors recognizes how important design is in really establishing a brand, a distinction with a brand in this industry.

The vehicles now are much more high tech. It’s almost like a convergence between your mobile device and your vehicle now.

Yeah, and it’s changing rapidly. I feel very good about the work of the CUE system that Cadillac has in place and really the work we’re doing with all of our brands. At the moment, I’m driving a LaCrosse and I just feel very good about what’s in the interior of that vehicle. Now with the CUE system with Cadillac it goes to yet another level. But these technologies are so much a part of everyone’s everyday life. And you should not take a technical step backwards when you get into your automobile. What is so great about the CUE system is that it really allows the driver of the car to really dial in as much or as little as he or she wants to have as their driving. And in no way does it make driving more difficult or more challenging. In fact, it should, and it does make driving easier.

Much of GM’s sales are now generated outside of the US. When looking at designing a vehicle, do you look at specific regions to see whether design might appeal to a particular area?

The cultures are different around the world, but our customers are exposed to the same information. We introduced a new vehicle at the San Paulo Brazil Auto Show and I’m getting emails within one minute from people in the United States and Europe with their reaction to what we just revealed. The world sees everything we do and they’re exposed to it all. As a result, many of our vehicles can play well around the world.

Cruze is a good example that is extremely successful wherever it goes, but wherever it goes, we do fine-tune the design to that environment. From a technical perspective it’s more in the right in handling and it may be in the power train that’s a bit different. From a design perspective, the color pallet is different, the materials and the interior may be different. But the basic vehicle is the same worldwide. So there’s an example of a vehicle that does play well globally. It’s a compact vehicle and it goes right at that very, very important compact segment around the world. In some markets, it’s more a luxury vehicle compared to everything else. Its role is a bit different. We do have designs that we’re developing that very much focus on the emerging market that are a bit different than vehicles we do for the more established market. And they’re very, very affordable vehicles. In some ways, very basic, but no matter where the market is, our customers are looking for very fresh designs.

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