World Exclusive Interview : Frank Saucedo

General Motors hasn’t always had the greenest image, but quietly a raft of new cars – from the forthcoming production Chevrolet Volt range-extender EV – to a host of forward-thinking concepts threaten to change that image. Frank Saucedo, as GM’s advanced design director, is at the forefront of those future ideas, from a trio of LA Design Challenge-winning virtual concepts – including the 2006 Hummer 02 which suggested breathable body panels filled with algae to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen – to more recent 3D projects like the downsizing-influenced 2010 GMC Granite and Cadillac ULC.

Green Car Design caught up with him at the LA show to discuss his latest Caddy concept and GM’s future eco design strategy.

GCD : As head of GM’s advanced design you do a lot of thinking about the future. How much of that is eco-related?

Saucedo : A lot. GM’s entry [and eventual joint winner] of the 2010 LA Design Challenge was called the Cadillac Aera. The brief was to create a 1000lb (454kg) car so we came up with an air-powered car whose chassis was a grown structure, like giant manufacturing SLA [stereo lithography apparatus]. One of my young designers, Jussi Timonen, demonstrated the idea with a glass of water and soap bubbles that he blew to make this super-efficient light and natural bubble structure. To create the car’s skin we had air bladders that also doubled as [fuel] tanks. It’s way out there, but shows how a thread of technology can lead to an inspirational idea. The whole lightweight theme of this year’s LA Challenge was an interesting premise. I own an 1100lb car, a 1961 Lotus Elite. It’s fragile in one way but such a beautiful design and highly efficient. It has a drag co-efficient of 0.29, an amazing figure for its time.

GCD : Do you think the car industry has gone backward in this respect, cars are much safer – less fragile – but just too heavy?

Saucedo : It was part of [Lotus founder] Colin Chapman’s philosophy to “add lightness”. He was a genius. When we did the Cadillac ULC (Urban Luxury Concept) concept – another Brit Niki Smart did the exterior – it was all about being efficient and small. We’ve been doing a lot of work on what we call ‘small premium’ for a few different brands, but this challenge was different. Translating Cadillac’s design language – including tall head and taillights and a spline that runs from the front light to the taillight – is hard to do on a car no bigger than a Mini. So we did a monospace. It’s unmistakably a Cadillac but still luxury. There really isn’t anything like it out there.

GCD : But the Mini goes some way towards that ‘small luxury’ concept and there’s the new Aston Martin Cygnet too?

Saucedo : Yes, but the Aston is a Toyota underneath, a cheap car. Our approach with the ULC was not to care if it costs more than the Cadillac CTS [a large sedan]. If it’s outfitted right I think you’d shoot for high-$30,000s or early $40,000s, which for that size car is unheard of, but if you do it right it should cost that much money. The people we’re hoping to draw in aren’t worried about those prices. They’re hoping to buy something efficient that fits their lifestyle and is small and easy to park in a city.

GCD : Where did the impetus come from for a small luxury car?

Saucedo : We’d just come out of the EN-V project and had a lot of research on mega cities. The eventual answer is to do what we did for that project – an autonomous drive two-seater type vehicle – but between now and then you need something in between. The young professionals we’re looking at maybe have a BMW 1 Series and are looking for the next step. Our research also suggests people in their 30s and 40s are having kids later and this nuclear family is a growing segment. They might have a BMW 325 and then switch to a big wagon, a large sedan or an SUV. But what if there was an efficient, premium alternative that didn’t sacrifice convenience as far as size?  

GCD : Do you think GM’s management and Cadillac customers really want this type of car though?

Saucedo : It was kind of risky for Cadillac. Even to make this show car I think there was some reticence, but our design VP Ed Welburn got it right away. We always hope a concept will open people’s minds. That’s my tagline for this car, ‘changing people’s perceptions about the size of vehicle in a premium market.’ It looks expensive and a cool size and shape. I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable getting out of it, although of course the [massive scissor] doors help! But even with sliding or parallel hinged ones you still have the advantages of that type of vehicle. I have a love of small cars, because that’s where I started. Right after school, aged 22, I went to work for Opel in Germany. I did the mk2 Corsa, the mk1 Tigra exterior, and then I was at VW for four years and worked on the mk2 Polo.

GCD : What green car design areas are you looking at? Downsizing is one; lightweight’s another plus material use?

Saucedo : The last one is the big one. People always go on like cars are the big polluters but really your house is, and it’s because of the way houses are built. Truly building cars that have reused, repurposed and recycled materials, we do a lot of that now, but I really believe we could do more.

GCD : What’s the biggest obstacle to that approach?

Saucedo : Development cost, plus whatever source you’re recycling, you never know what you’re going to get, whether it’s been polluted, so your waste rate can become higher, then you’re not really doing anything, you’re just making more waste.

GCD : Those processes are being improved but do you think there’s still a mindset problem, that people still aren't paying enough heed to green issues?

Saucedo : We worked on a project called ‘guilt-free green’. If you can make something that doesn’t inconvenience people it’s going to sell.

GCD : Some say soon there will be no such thing as ‘green car design’ as all cars will be ‘green’. Do you buy that argument?

Saucedo : Like safety today is the standard price of entry into the market, I don’t think in the future you’ll be able to buy a car that has a ridiculous carbon footprint. They’re starting to list a car’s emissions on the window sticker in showrooms already and you’ll see more, like, ‘it was built in this factory and used this much energy’. Customers want to make the right decision you just have to make it easier for them.

GCD : Who do think is pushing forward eco design of any kind?

Saucedo : Every year I try to go to the TED conference – Technology, Entertainment, Design – they bring people from all around the world to share ideas. I heard architects from the Prefab movement speak there and was inspired by their great green homes – disproving everybody that says a green product has to be unattractive.