On its face, this video is entirely about the 1992 General Motors Ultralite concept. Created by GM Communications, it details how the company’s employees went above and beyond to create a working, running, ultra-light weight concept that obtained over 100-MPG. You see a slew of GM executives and employees, some famous and most undoubtedly long gone from GM, all talking about why the Ultralite is the way of the future.
For any car buff, learning about how the Ultralite’s body was made of carbon fiber and the 2-cycle engine that was made to be easily removed makes for an interesting watch. However, 20-years later, all that information about the Ultralite isn’t the most interesting part. No, the reason you want to watch this particular video is because there’s more foreshadowing about what GM thought the next 20 years of the automotive industry would be like woven into 10-minutes than you might imagine. What did they get right? What did they get really really wrong?
Watch it and see for yourself then check out our run-down of the most interesting quotes below.
Executives, Quotes & Highlights
1:03 – Apparently, NAIAS in 1992 looks just like we thought it would have
1:05 – “It’s a revolution in the way the automotive industry will think about fuel efficiency in the future”
1:36 – Gary Dickinson
2:14 – Jim Bieck
2:26 – Bill Ochalek
2:30 – Don Runkle “Now this is a vehicle that is a four passenger car. It has the interior accommodations of say, something like a Corsica today. A nice family sized compact sorta car. Something you might expect to see a lot of in the year 2000 and 2005”
3:03 – Jim Lutz
3:28 – “It’s more than carbon fiber and more than just emissions and fuel economy. At the end of the day, it’s got to be a car that you say, ‘I want to go for a ride in this car. I want to take this car home’ ”
3:45 – Gary Dickinson talks about the 2-cycle engine and uses his hands to demonstrate the difference between a 2-cycle and 4-cycle engine
4:17 – “The headlights feature a a central light source and fiber optic feeds the light out to lenses, we think that will be on future production cars in the 4 to 5 year span”
4:31 – “The taillights are LED. We’re currently using that on some high-mounted stoplights. So, Ultralight showcases advanced lighting..”
5:08 – “The vehicle also has four safety airbags. One for each passenger.”
5:19 – “The engine and rear wheels are a modular unit or pod. The whole mechanism detaches quickly from the vehicle. This configuration could allow the customer to choose from several powertrain options”
5:32 – “With the Ultralite we’ve looked at a gas turbine powertrain option, an all electric powertrain option….”
5:40 – “From a service perspective you can imagine, going in for service on your engine….pulling it out, connecting a substitute pod and coming back a few days later…or just staying with the substitute pod keeping that as a new engine, transmission pod for your vehicle and virtually eliminating the time it takes to service your vehicle at the dealership”
6:23 – “General Motors has always been in the process of leading production with research and development. We always have to step way beyond what the requirements are today to look to see what’s possible…”
6:37 – “The reason General Motors is successful today, with it’s fuel efficiency in the marketplace today is because of effective research and development in the past”
7:28 – Chuck Jordan
8:07 – “Here’s an example of us deciding to do something, us deciding to make a knock out vehicle that blows away the competition in the concept car arena… it just tells you we have the ability to do anything”
8:40 – “…we hope things will proceed in bits and pieces towards our production cars”
9:26 – “I’ve been in General Motors for 31 years and I am always impressed with General Motors capability. When we decide to do something, there’s no one in the world that can do it better”
Learning from looking back
This video hits on a combination of notes, including true vision about where the industry was heading to an over-optimistic view about how things would turn out. It even shows unwavering loyalty to the same GM corporate culture that was to blame for the problems the company faced over the following years.
Perhaps the most over-ambitious prediction comes from Don Runckle, who optimistically thought that the world would see a lot of small family sized compact cars being sold by the year 2000 or 2005. As we now know, those years did everything but sell small compact cars. Don’t forget the most iconic brand of the early 21st century, HUMMER. Fortunately, Don kept his vision and today leads EcoMotors designing high-efficiency engines.
Other ideas born with the concept, such as the removable engine & transmission are still revolutionary and unimplemented today. Even the theory that small compact cars would be a big seller eventually came to fruition…but a dozen years after GM thought they would. Even today in 2012, the car to get closest to 100-MPG is the Chevrolet Volt, which isn’t selling as well as GM had hoped. However, while GM engineers discussed a variety of powertrains for the Ultralite, including all-electric, the idea of a hybrid powertrain didn’t seem to be on the table in 1992. We now know that starting in 1996, GM would lease the all-electric EV1, but that’s whole story in itself.
Some ideas presented are a glimpse into the future turned reality. Some are close but never made it. For example, LED taillights are common these days but fiber optic headlights are not. An airbag for every passenger is expected in 2012 but widely-adopted use of carbon fiber is still years into the future.
The Ultralite concept later went on to be featured in two movies (Demolition Man & Bicentennial Man) and one TV show (seaQuest DSV) because of it’s futuristic and unusual shape.
But a cold wind was about to roll into General Motors in the years after the concept was introduced. The past paragraph of the video’s description, uploaded by someone involved in the project, says it all:
A second roller chasis body was constructed intended for full engineering ongoing development. However, a major GM corporate change happened: the project team was disbanded, the execs retired or reassigned and the R&D was stopped. The Ultralite project was placed into the GM archives where it stays to this day..
If you’re interested, here’s more info on the GM Ultralite