General Motors Director of Global Vehicle Safety: Crash Avoidance Tech 'Should Be Intuitive'

Oct 24, 2014 09:00 AM EDT | Jeff Jablansky

As director of global vehicle safety for General Motors, John Capp has the position coveted by engineers the world over: bringing the future of advanced safety technology into the present. A GM lifer, Capp has direct influence over the next enhancements to come to market. We had the chance to sit down with Capp at a recent media event held in Detroit.

Tell us how you began your career with General Motors.

[I began as a] co-op student. I went to General Motors Institute [now Kettering University] as a student. I'd work one semester in school and one semester at the tech center, back and forth, to get an engineering degree. You end up graduating with a couple of years of experience, which is really nice.

Did you start your engineering career with GM?

Yes, and I've stayed here since. The thing that has always kept me is that, yes, it's a great company and cars are awesome, but it's really fun as an engineer to work on so many different things over the course of a career. So if you get tired of working in one area, it's not like you have to quit your company and go work somewhere else. It's just around the time when you might get a new assignment, or a new vehicle program comes along that you get assigned to. It's almost like starting all over again.

What was the first vehicle that you worked on?

When I started, I worked on some safety projects around side impact crashworthiness, because that was coming into play in the late '80s-figuring out standards and environments for side impact. I was working on some of our small car vehicle programs, like the Grand Am and the Malibu in the mid-'90s. In fact, I was the lead safety engineer on those programs. I went to Europe for a couple of years, toward the end of 1998-99, working on our next-generation Malibu that was on a global platform. We were also launching in Germany.

Were you involved in Malibu Maxx, as well?

Yep. It was part of that platform, and I was very involved in that.

How do you think the Malibu Maxx turned out?

I'm more on the technical side of the business, but from a portfolio standpoint, the company always has to keep trying some different products, because you never know when you're going to hit a double or a triple or a home run. You can't always do the same kinds of vehicles. You've got to feed the mainstream-sedans, crossovers, SUVs-but you have to try some different body styles and different ideas. Some take off more than others do.

How does global vehicle safety play for countries like India and China?

Both myself and Jeff [Boyer, vice president of global vehicle safety] visit the regions and make sure that we are aligned in terms of strategy, and share knowledge. With a lot of our engineering functions, we in southeast Michigan have to help the engineering centers around the world. We have more depth of expertise, particularly in some of the ones that are getting up and going in emerging market areas. We visit them, and send people over for periods of time, to help train them and get them up to speed.

Would you say that priorities for safety are different in those markets than in Michigan?

A little bit. Those regions are catching up with where some of the consumer metrics and standards are, and where they've been in the U.S. and in Europe. Some of the crashworthiness standards and occupant performance targets-whether it's a front or side crash-are just getting established in China, India, and South America. They're following in the footprint of North America and Europe, but it's moving very quickly. They're moving quickly to mimic the homework that's been done in some of those regions. What may have taken 20 years here is not going to take [that much time] to do in China. It might take two.

Does that concern you, how fast China is moving?

It doesn't concern me. It amazes me. Just as fast as they put up buildings and cities, how fast the car market is maturing over there is amazing and impressive. We have a pretty big presence in China. The Buick brand and others are doing well. We share some of our global vehicle platforms and are benefiting from some of the work that's done in China. It's just amazing how quickly Chinese people are adapting to wanting cars.

Do you have a favorite technology that you worked to steer at GM?

You probably gathered that I'm excited about these crash avoidance technologies. Those really have been my baby for the last six or seven years. I've led the Super Cruise project over the last several years, kicked it off; the [Vehicle-to-Vehicle] technology that we announced for rollout, I've been leading that as well. I'm really excited about those. They're finally getting traction and are going to be in real cars. You may work on something that takes a while, but then it gets into a real car and that's satisfying. It makes this business fun.

Beyond teens, do you think there is a need to educate the elderly, who might be able to benefit from these systems but might not know how to use them?

Yes: Education is always a part of dealing with consumers. As we make cars complicated with technology, we need to give [customers] information on how to use them. It may not be so much about how to use it. Part of how we're designing these active safety features is that you shouldn't have to be a computer programmer to use them. They should just work. They should be intuitive and help you drive better. If you have to pull out the manual to do some programming, then we haven't met our objective. They're actually pretty simple in terms of how they interface with the customer, but if you want to understand how they work, then it's a little more complicated. People are curious, and that's OK, too.

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