Edward T. Welburn Jr. is the highest-ranking African American in the world’s auto manufacturing work force as the vice president of global design for General Motors.
During the Los Angeles Auto Show, Welburn, who has been with GM for almost 40 years, helped to unveil the first luxury electric car, the Cadillac ELR, which he announced would be transitioned from concept car into a full production vehicle.
Afterwards, Welburn spoke to a covey of reporters, car writers and auto bloggers about the evolution of the GM brands, particularly Caddys, his ties to Howard University and how revolutionary mobile technology enhanced by Steve Jobs has bled into the auto industry.
You announced the spectacular Cadillac ELR will begin production in 2012. How did GM come to that conclusion?
We have a different strategy for each brand. We might as well start with Cadillac. We have mapped out a whole string of production vehicles that we’re bringing to market. And each concept vehicle has a different strategic reason for being. Some are there to make a statement for the brand, that this is the direction that we’re going in. Other concepts are kind of like testing the market, and others are previews of what’s actually coming.
There is more technology in these cars than ever before. Is the design dictating the technology, or are the design and technology working together?
It has to work together in order for it to work together. Technology for technology’s sake can be overpowering and overbearing and make the driving experience more complex. There’s nothing worse than trying to fumble around and figure out what this thing is doing. That’s not luxury. Luxury is an experience that makes you feel rewarded, makes you feel more comfortable, even more relaxed. And if the CUE system can do that, then you’ve got a real winner. The system can deliver as much information as you like or as little as you like. Now that’s luxury.
Are there business books that you’ve read that inspired you and took your business game to another level?
I just had terrific parents who gave me great advice. I just had this passion for design ever since I was a kid. And it’s just been a desire to get to this point to do what I do. When I joined GM, I just wanted to design cars. I didn’t know I would be in charge of designing cars. I just wanted to do something that I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was a very young kid. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great people. I’ve learned what to do. I’ve learned what not to do by observing. Mr. Bob Lutz, I learned a lot from him.
Speaking of learning, you have kept close ties to your collegiate alma mater, Howard University, which harnessed your passion for design and from where you received your internship at General Motors. Recently, the GM Foundation and PACE awarded the school nearly $88,000.
I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my career. And they did everything they could to support my vision. For more than 30 years we’ve provided ongoing support to Howard University as a key institution in developing world-class engineering, manufacturing, design and business talent. There is a critical need for these types of skill sets across the industry right now as automotive companies re-tool to meet the demands of more technologically advanced vehicles. The GM Foundation and PACE grants are designed to help young people gain the knowledge they will need to meet these challenges.