Fast Talk: Hard Drive

Where is the auto business going? Voices from the world’s most important industry discuss the future of designing, selling, marketing, and manufacturing cars.

Robert A. Lutz

General Motors
Vice Chairman, Product Development
Detroit, Michigan


Our vehicles — and i speak collectively for the American industry — are much better than what many people believe. But we have to wait for this market fact to catch up with the product fact. One way to spur that along is to recapture the imagination of the public by making exceptional vehicles that stand out from the crowd — vehicles that trigger the urge to buy. Whenever you do something extraordinary, something that captures the mood and fancy of the public, they’ll buy it. Believe me, we have no problem selling the Hummer H2.

We need lots more creativity, lots more really exciting designs. Today, for example, there’s a strong trend toward large aluminum wheels. In the aftermarket that supplies wheels to celebrity-owned Cadillac Escalades, there’s no such thing as a wheel that’s too big. They can look ridiculous, like wagon wheels, but it’s the cool thing right now. That trend is moving into the mass market. Another major trend is what the trade calls “crossover vehicles” — a vehicle that’s too tall to be a station wagon but too low to be an SUV.

You’re also going to see a lot more variety in body styles and shapes. It used to be that everyone marched in lockstep in terms of design. When the industry went hard-edge, everybody went hard-edge, and when it went soft, everybody went soft. Now companies realize that you can do a very exciting, new-looking car with crisp, hard edges. At the same time, you can execute a design that’s soft and flowing. As long as they’re executed superbly, both approaches can look modern and have a lot of legitimacy.

Tim Benner

Honda Motor Co.
Codesigner, Honda Element
Torrance, California

Coming up with exciting designs requires new approaches to innovation. Our challenge with the Element was to develop a totally new product for the Honda lineup that could coexist with the Honda Civic and that would target young gen-Y males.

Executives gave us carte blanche to understand how those guys were using their cars. The team did immersion research, going to frat houses and hanging out with surfers and mountain bikers. A lot of the Element’s features came from understanding their lifestyles.


Our conceptual framework at Honda starts with the idea of a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid are themes that are pressing to the buyer and how they tie into the product. For the Element, one theme was “hobby space.” We wanted to make sure that the car could fit two mountain bikes or a 10-foot surfboard. Another was “campground friendly.” The car could sleep two people comfortably. A third theme was “road-trip friendly.” We had images of surfers and mountain bikers resting inside the car, eating food and spilling soda on the floor. That led to spill-proof material on the seats and a wipeable flat floor. All of those features relate to different themes that we created for the product, and all of those themes directly tie back to something like a young man’s first freedom.

But the Element isn’t just for young men. We also developed it with its secondary buyers in mind: the new gen-X family that didn’t want to buy into mainstream vehicles and that didn’t want to sell out to convention. I’d like to think the sum of this vehicle is greater than its many parts. It’s tough for people to put their finger on it. The Element is quirky, it’s funky, it’s independent, it’s maverick.

Karen Marderosian

VW of America Inc.
Director of Marketing
Auburn Hills, Michigan

Our job is to make an emotional connection. We look at what our brand is about and what each product has to offer, put them in a cultural context, and emphasize what’s important to our audience.

We start from a position of strength on this. If you look at the new Beetle, with its imagery, its iconic nature, just the shape of the vehicle — it stirs up emotions. The Beetle is a social vehicle. There’s a friendly, human, approachable aspect to the car. That’s especially true of the Beetle convertible. We joke that people who drive convertibles give off the message, “Look at me, but don’t talk to me.” People who drive Beetles want to talk.

If you look at what we call the “Bubble” spot, which we used to launch the Beetle convertible, it’s really about isolation. The guy is caught up in his world. It isn’t a depressing world. He just kind of goes along with it, does his thing, and doesn’t think very much about it. Then, all of a sudden, the Beetle convertible comes along and turns his world around: Maybe there’s something better out there. The subtlety in that message is what makes it so powerful. There’s a product message in there, but it’s really about what the product can bring to your life.


One of the best-known ads that we’ve done, “Sunday Afternoon,” had two guys in a Golf, driving around L.A., and they stop to pick up a stinky chair. If you think about it, that spot was really about a roomy hatch. But it also connects the car with a relevant situation in life: Sometimes you’re putting a bike on top of your car and driving to the mountains; sometimes you don’t have anything to do. It was a subtle, honest approach.

Arianna Huffington

Columnist/Cofounder, The Detroit Project
Los Angeles, California

I’m not trying to psychoanalyze why people drive SUVs. But one morning, when I was taking my daughter to school, I saw a huge Cadillac Escalade with five American flags. I thought, Wouldn’t it be much more patriotic just to dump the thing? In November 2001, I gave up my Lincoln Navigator in favor of a Toyota Prius.

For me, the catalyst was September 11. I wrote a column that parodied the ads about the drug war that say that drug users support terrorists. I pointed out the much more credible argument that gas-guzzling cars fund terrorists. I ended with a rhetorical question: Would anybody be willing to pay for a campaign to jolt our leaders into reality? I woke up to a flood of email. We produced two ads, which created a media frenzy and got us millions of dollars’ worth of free exposure for our message.

Something is changing out there. We’ve had a 14% drop in SUV sales recently. There has been a tipping point. We need to keep the pressure on Detroit to produce hybrid SUVs. We need to move from prototypes and rhetoric to actual cars on the road and put some advertising muscle behind it. This can become a self-sustaining movement, like the designated-driver campaign. Do you remember how we went from the idea that drinking and driving was macho and cool to it being socially irresponsible?

There will be plenty of people who want to go ahead and drive these gas-guzzlers. This is not about mandating what people drive. Our campaign uses parody and satire to change the way that Detroit and Washington operate and to help people connect the dots of their own consumption habits.


Simon Rothman

eBay Inc.
Founder of Ebay Motors
San Jose, California

There are lots of different ways that people have approached selling cars online. Our approach has been unique for three reasons. First, we only sell used cars. Second, we have nationalized the used-car marketplace, where before it was inherently local. Third, we have introduced an element of control. If you’re a seller, you set the price that you want for a vehicle; as a buyer, you put in the price that you’re willing to pay. There’s a little more information symmetry that way. Additionally, you can find out everything that the seller has bought and sold on the site to get a sense of his reputation. It’s almost like getting to know him a bit.

So far, our approach is working. Last year, the second full year that the business was in operation, eBay Motors did nearly $3 billion worth of automotive sales, representing approximately 300,000 cars. Even in a huge industry — there are 42 million – plus used cars sold per year, around $370 billion worth — this is an interesting and promising number.

One big factor behind our success: We don’t view dealers as competitors. Dealers are great at selling cars. The majority of car listings on eBay are from dealers. Why? Because for $40, a dealer can attract a national audience. We have 61 million customers on the site, and last month, 8 million people hopped on to eBay Motors. Each auction gets an average of seven or eight bids. Roughly 75% of the cars sold on the site are sold across state lines. The National Automotive Dealers Association reports that dealers spend upward of $500 to get one local customer to buy one car. So eBay is an amazingly efficient distribution channel for dealers.