Corvette Chief Engineer on Why You Won’t See a Self-Driving Sports Car

Written

Corvette Chief Engineer on Why You Won’t See a Self-Driving Sports Car

With 37 years at GM, Tadge Juechter offers a long-view perspective on the auto industry.
Tadge Juechter, Corvette's chief engineer. | Andrew Trahan Photography

Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter never intended to work for General Motors. A teenage summer job on the assembly line had soured him on auto manufacturing, and Juechter said he couldn’t see himself at a big company where he was just another cog in the machine.

Yet when a college friend asked Juechter to accompany him to an interview there, he went along and interviewed himself, mostly on a lark. To his surprise, he got the job.

That was 37 years ago.

Since then, Juechter, who earned his MBA from Stanford GSB in 1986, has climbed his way up the ladder at GM, spending the past 20 years working on its flagship sports car, Corvette. In 2006, he became just the fifth chief engineer in the storied automobile’s 62-year history. In that role, he has final authority on the direction of one of the world’s most iconic car brands, and was the driving force behind 2014’s lap-time–obliterating Stingray C7, for which he was named Automobile Magazine’s Man of the Year.

Even with all the accolades, Juechter hasn’t been able to entirely escape the manufacturing work he dreaded in his youth. Like all engineers at Corvette, he spends at least one day a year at the company’s plant in Kentucky, working on the assembly line. With the benefit of experience, Juechter says he now finds it informative.

Corvette is the tip of the technology spear. What we do helps the whole portfolio because things that are great for making a sports car are also great for making an efficient car.
Tadge Juechter

“When you’re sitting in an engineering office, and you see this great black finish on a part, it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s make it all black — it will match!’” he says. “Well, you get down to the plant and the light’s not that great and maybe you’re pushing 60 and you need reading glasses, and now you’re trying to find this black hole on a black part to put in a black fastener, and suddenly you realize you’ve made a mistake.

“Every detail is important, even down to the color of the parts.”

Juechter describes his tinkering passion, Detroit’s hubris, and self-driving cars in this interview with Stanford Business, edited for length and clarity.

Were you into cars at a young age?

I had a fascination with taking things apart. The first car I actually owned, technically, was my mother’s ’64 Cadillac DeVille sedan, but I never really drove it because she gave it to me after she wrapped it around a tree, so it was not really roadworthy. They donated it to me to take apart. They let me disassemble that entire vehicle just off the driveway of our home. It made a horrible, horrible mess.

But I was tinkering with everything. From cars to bicycles to building go-karts. Anything mechanical, I loved to play with. In the ’70s, I built a bicycle with full suspension, not thinking that one day that’d be something you’d be able to buy. It was like a precursor to the mountain bike. I used to go boinging around the neighborhood on this bicycle with like a foot of ride travel on the suspension. It was hilarious to see.

You’ve been with GM for nearly 37 years. That’s a long time, but especially for a company that’s had to reinvent itself as much as GM. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed over the years?

I don’t know if I can even say there was one single biggest change. The whole place is just completely different. When I first started in the ’70s, General Motors was at the height of its power. I tell people, and they don’t believe me, but it was like the Apple Computer of its day. We had 50% market share in cars, and we were in everything else, too. We were in locomotives. People don’t realize we invented the iron lung. Medical devices, refrigeration, appliances, everything. That was the peak of GM’s influence, to the point that the government was considering breaking the company up.

That’s the company I started at. That’s the company that got the reputation for being very arrogant, and not very flexible. That’s the company that ignored the rise of foreign cars until it was too late. There was a lot of hubris there. I watched the evolution of the company as it suddenly had to fight for survival for many years, until we finally failed at that and went bankrupt [in 2009]. And then I watched the rebirth in the relatively recent past.

The company has a completely different feel today than when I started. For the better, I think. But you know, it’s funny — my office is actually 50 feet from the office I had back then. So in 37 years, I’ve come 50 feet.

Given your unique perspective, what do you think of the recent “reinvention of Detroit” narrative? Has Detroit reinvented itself, and what does that look like on the ground?

The major perception is that Detroit can’t compete, and that’s why we went bankrupt. But if you look at Corvette as an example, we compete exclusively with imported cars. Who produces sports cars? It’s Porsche, BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes, Audi. Ford has the Mustang, but that’s more of a Camaro competitor. If you look at two-seater sports cars, it’s the elite, the who’s-who of the auto world. And they’re typically the flagships of their respective companies. You know, the Porsche 911. That’s their flagship, and that’s our competition.

And we not only compete, we dominate. Last figures I checked, in our segment we have something like 45% market share in North America. Nobody has 45% market share, in any segment. It’s unheard of. We’ve been quite dominant for a long time.

Why do you think Corvette has been able to stay around for so long when the rest of the domestic auto industry has struggled?

It’s staying true to the mission of the car. Corvette has had its moments where it almost died. I don’t want it to seem like we’ve had a free ride the whole way.

But if you look at other vehicles that are successful long term, they tend to stay true to their mission. They don’t try to wander off and be something they’re not. There are plenty of examples where cars tried to get bigger, or go from four passengers to two, or tried to migrate upmarket. They get cocky and think, “Wow, we could sell these things at a much higher price — let’s do an upscale version.” That doesn’t work. You have to stay true to what you are.

Is that harder to do in today’s auto industry? It seems like there’s a conversion going on. Years ago you wouldn’t buy a luxury car because you were going to take it to the track, but now you have the Tesla Model S, which is a luxury sedan that goes from zero to 60 in three seconds.

People want to have their cake and eat it too. But that’s our job, to figure out how to use technology to give them their cake and let them eat it too. I think it’s true of every market segment; people expect more of everything these days. I mean, economy cars these days are quite zippy, for example. They’ve got these little turbo engines, and they’re faster than Corvettes used to be a couple decades ago.

Regardless of where we compete, we’re all looking for the same things around technology. And people ask me, why is GM even doing Corvettes anymore? Shouldn’t you be focusing on things like fuel efficiency?

But what they don’t realize is that Corvette is the tip of the technology spear. What we do helps the whole portfolio because things that are great for making a sports car are also great for making an efficient car. We need very efficient engines to get high horsepower. We need great aerodynamics to get a high top speed, the exact same thing you need to have low drag in an efficient vehicle. A lot of the same technologies we push the envelope on apply to every market segment. We have a big poster here full of things where Corvette was first in the industry, and now they’re commonplace. We were the first composite body car, for example. Way ahead of the curve. Now most companies use composites.

Does that mean we’ll see a self-driving Corvette some day?

That’s one technology where I expect we’ll be last to the party. The whole purpose of our car is to enjoy the experience. It’s not to text while driving. It’s to be fully participating in a great ride. We want you to be the computer behind the wheel.

But there might be ways that we could use the same technology in a way that might be fun for us. For example, have the car be an on-track driving coach. You could use autonomous driving to show you the capabilities of a car on the track. I mean, this has already been proven — an autonomous car can drive the track the same way a racecar driver could. You have the car give drivers feedback when they’re deviating from optimal driving. You might even use that technology to scale up the level of assist you’re getting so you’re effectively coached by the car on how to drive quickly and safely on a racetrack. So even for what looks like a completely foreign technology to a sports car, we might be able to use it to create a unique driving experience.

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