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SHANGHAI AUTO SHOW
Behind GM's GEM of a plan to hit pay dirt in China, emerging markets
Reuters | 2019/4/19

General Motors has spent five years rewriting its playbook for making money in Chinas interior and Latin America. Now, it's showtime for the first results of a project code-named GEM, for Global Emerging Market.

At events this week ahead of the Shanghai Auto Show, the U.S. automaker unveiled two small utility vehicles that will be part of a new family of sedans and utilities the automaker forecasts will make up one in five of its global vehicle sales by 2023.

This is just the opening salvo in a nearly $5 billion bet by GM to sell up to 2 million technology-laden, modern-looking vehicles annually to consumers who today cannot afford GM vehicles designed for the United States, but may someday as their incomes rise.

GM has struggled for years to crack the code for growing profitably outside rich markets, in part because vehicles designed for the U.S. or China's wealthy coastal cities cost too much for developing world consumers. The company has abandoned some Southeast Asian countries and pulled back from Africa because it could not compete.

This time around, GM says, through disciplined cost-control it has finally found a way to make affordable vehicles in bulk for emerging markets, loaded with the technology that consumers want and still make a profit.

The Chevrolet Tracker and the Buick Encore not to be confused with its American cousin of the same name are the first tests of a new strategy for engineering vehicles to appeal to buyers in around 40 nations of the world's middle class such as Brazil and Mexico, and the huge developing market that exists within China's heartland.

The GEM project involved an unprecedented level of cooperation with GM's Chinese joint venture partner SAIC Motor Corp. GM and SAIC shared engineering costs and collaborated on purchasing, GM executives said.

What potential customers will see are vehicles that include amenities such as touch screens, mobile phone connectivity, rear-view cameras and safety features such as automatic emergency braking and airbags.

What GM is counting on them not to notice is that the number of options is limited, to reduce complexity in purchasing and manufacturing, or that touches such as fully carpeted trunks are absent. "We may not be the absolute lowest price point in China," GM President Mark Reuss told Reuters at the automaker's downtown Detroit headquarters. "But we're going to be right in that segment where this is a pretty good-sized car... [with] a huge value for what you pay for it."

The team that set out to build GM's new vehicle family included engineers and designers from 14 different countries, meeting at the automaker's technical center in the Detroit suburb of Warren to hammer out details that were then executed in China and elsewhere, GM executives said.

As the basic design of the GEM vehicles took shape, the strategy for where they would be sold changed. GM pulled out of some markets like India and Vietnam that were originally slated to be among the target markets.

The challenge GEM project chief engineer Doug Houlihan faced was how to deliver low-cost vehicles that did not look cheap or lack key safety features.

Sometimes, that meant spending more. Houlihan gave the green light to spend extra on machines that could weld on the tops of car doors rather than stamping the door in one piece. The extra investment delivered a door that fit smoothly into the roof of the car for a sleeker look.

"This gives the customer more than they would expect," Houlihan said.

To offset that cost, Houlihan and his colleagues dug into logistics and the supply chain.

Shipping some vehicles by sea between Brazilian ports saved money in a market where moving goods by road can be a logistics nightmare.

Houlihan said that Brazilian logistics savings more than paid for the extra $2 per vehicle GM invested for a rear axle five times stronger than its predecessor in South America. One GM plant in Brazil took over some work on engines and bumpers that had previously been outsourced, saving $120 per vehicle a significant figure for a low-cost vehicle.

Integrating the head rest on the front seat for some models saved $7 per vehicle.

Chinese suppliers are key to the new GM vehicle line, but the automaker is shifting away from relying on Chinese production.

GM has tried to localize costs for these vehicles as much as possible which can help offset currency fluctuations that hit markets like Brazil. That can also mitigate the impact of tariffs. 

U.S. President Donald Trump has escalated trade tensions with China and has threatened a broad tariff on U.S. autos and parts.

"You try and tariff-proof yourself and get it as local as you can," GM's Reuss said.

GM's new emerging market lineup will face plenty of competition. Chinese automakers are pushing into some of the same countries GM has targeted.

Jeff Schuster, a senior executive at auto forecaster LMC Automotive, said GM's advantage could last just a few years if rivals follow with their own low-cost models that offer modern amenities to match those in new Chevrolets and Buicks.

Internally, a key test will be how GM applies the cost-saving strategies used in the global emerging market project to other vehicle programs.

Houlihan has been named to lead efforts to apply the cost lessons learned from this project to GM's global lineup of crossovers for the Cadillac, Buick, Chevrolet and GMC brands.

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