INTERVIEW: Michael Ableson, GM Europe's new VP of Engineering
As GM Europe's vice president of Engineering, Ableson is responsible for all regional activities within GM's global engineering function
Michael Ableson, General Motors' former head of compact car development, began his career with the company in 1984. He has worked in a number of senior engineering positions in the US and Germany since then. His most recent appointment sees him heading up Engineering for GM Europe. He recently spoke to Glenn Brooks about the new role.
j-a: Your predecessor Rita Forst is said to have left the company, with Opel's 30 August press release stating that you had been appointed GM Europe's vice president of Engineering, effective 18 July. Could you tell us more about that situation?
MA: I have a lot of respect for Rita, we were colleagues for a number of years, and I just want to say I appreciate all the work she did for the company.
j-a: Does your appointment signal some big changes for Engineering at Opel-Vauxhall?
MA: We have made no secret of the fact that we have an ongoing restructuring taking place.
j-a: Let's talk then about new products that you have inherited. What can you tell us about the Adam?
MA: I'm excited about the Adam, and in particular the way we will offer so much personalisation for the car. We have up to 30,000 ways you can spec the car.
j-a: Doesn't that make it expensive and complicated to manufacture?
MA: It depends how you design in the possibilities. The design studio worked closely with suppliers and did a great job working out which elements could be changed. I'll give you one example. Take a look at the car's wheels and you'll see we have these plastic clips which give colour customisation. Or inside, we have different headliners, one of which had 63 LED which we call the 'starlight' option.
j-a: All those extra cost options might help Opel and Vauxhall's balance sheet but why aren't you offering the car with a diesel engine, a six-speed manual gearbox or any form of automatic transmission?
MA: In this segment, the majority of buyers want a gas engine with manual transmission. So we took the decision to go with where the volume is.
j-a: I was told by a contact within GM that there won't be high-priced OPC or VXR versions of the Adam. How can that be at a time when there is so much pressure on Opel and Vauxhall to improve cash flow and profits?
MA: All I will say is this is just the beginning for Adam, and we have no shortage of ideas for the future.
j-a: How about a convertible, surely that's under development?
MA: I can't comment on that.
j-a: So that's not a no?
MA: As I said, I'm not going to comment.
j-a: How about EVs then, will we see an electric Adam?
MA: We already have the Ampera, which is the number one selling EV in Europe. Yes, we're always looking at other opportunities to expand our EV line-up and we're committed to electric cars but there is nothing more for me to say at this time.
j-a: Let me ask the question in another way: are plug-in cars a priority for your engineers?
MA: It's really a case of when and which technology we will introduce. We're already strong with EVs thanks to the Ampera. EVs are just one of the technologies we continue to develop.
j-a: Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and others have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles headed for low-volume production between now and 2015. What plans does Opel-Vauxhall have?
MA: General Motors has been a long-time leader with this technology, as you'll know from our fleet of experimental vehicles. We haven't made any announcements about production plans.
j-a: Opel and Vauxhall have three extra products due for launch in the next six months: Mokka, Adam and Cascada. Are your engineers also working on more models, perhaps bigger and more expensive vehicles?
MA: All I will say is that we continue to evaluate higher-price segments.
j-a: Still no plans to federalise the Adam? Surely the car could be sold by another GM division in the States as a rival for the Mini and Fiat 500?
MA: No, we have no intention to re-engineer the Adam for sale in the US.
j-a: What's happening to Engineering at Opel in this ongoing climate of cost cutting?
MA: One of the things we're been very clear on is that we continue to invest. You'll see 23 new or refreshed vehicles by 2016. We have not been cutting back on our investments.
j-a: How is the alliance with PSA progressing? Your predecessor told me six months ago that it was too early to talk about it and that anyway it was a collaboration between GM and PSA, not Opel and PSA.
MA: We are on track with the PSA alliance. There are three pillars to what we share: Logistics, Purchasing and Vehicle programmes. I'm not going to go into details of what we're up to with Engineering. What really matters is that this deal gives us another tool to become profitable again.