In a recent press release, GM and Brightdrop announced that Brightdrop would become part of GM. But, as far as most people know, Brightdrop was already a GM company. So, what does that even mean? In this article, I’m going to explain further what this move really is and what it really means for the future of GM.
Brightdrop Was A “Startup” Owned By GM
In short, GM owned Brightdrop, but it wasn’t a normal GM division like, say, Chevrolet or Cadillac. BrightDrop started in GM’s Innovation Lab, and then grew into a fully-owned subsidiary. According to the company, that structure allowed BrightDrop to operate with the agility and innovation of a tech startup (because it was mostly independent), but also had the advantage of access to GM’s deeper manufacturing expertise, and perhaps more importantly, GM’s checkbook.
Other incumbent automakers have done similar things. For example, Ford’s first electric vehicles started out in a loosely-held idea lab, which then became Ford Model E in Ford’s current plan to shift to electrification (other parts of Ford’s company are Ford Pro and Ford Blue).
I’ll discuss this more further down, but long story short, this idea doesn’t seem to be working out as well as originally hoped. The company now thinks that moving Brightdrop into the main house is a better idea. This could enable better services for fleets through GM’s Envolve commercial services arm, while things Brightdrop currently does with software could work better as part of GM’s main software efforts (especially as Ultium develops).
This doesn’t mean that Brightdrop will become just another GM nameplate, though. The company’s press release makes it clear that things Brightdrop figured out will affect GM, too. Bringing them into the main GM house means it will be part of the GM family, but adding someone to a family always means that the family changes, too.
Tesla’s Silicon Valley Mythology May Be Exactly That: A Myth
The most important thing I learned from Edward Niedermeyer’s book Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors is that the EV world requires all companies to walk a tightrope. While most Tesla fanatics dismiss the book (without having read it) as a book that trashes on Tesla, it did have some praise for the company. Incumbent automotive manufacturers have always moved slowly but steadily, and making a big change like going EV is challenging for them. So, being more agile is a great thing.
On the other hand, the “move fast and break things” isn’t a great way to run a larger automotive company. The book tells a story of a former Tesla employee who tried to get a job at Toyota. In an interview, he told Toyota’s executives about his heroism in fixing problems on an assembly line to keep production moving, but this didn’t impress Toyota’s people because their employer would see the need for such heroism to be a serious problem in and of itself.
This isn’t to say that Brightdrop did things the way Tesla used to, and run the company on a knife’s edge for innovation and speed’s sake. But, the wider idea that EVs can only be done by startups while big “legacy” auto companies can’t do it isn’t the obvious truth we’ve been led to think it is.
In the very beginning, it might be a good idea to have an EV operation start as a startup of sorts, but just like Tesla, it must grow up if it’s to become a big player. Just like other companies, the agile startup model is a great way to start, but it’s a tough way to compete on the larger market.
Featured image by Brightdrop/GM.