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John Calabrese 
John Calabrese, vice president of Global Vehicle Engineering and president of Global Technology Operations for General Motors Co., helps predict future GM moves. ( Calabrese retired from GM in 2014)

imageJohn Calabrese has quite a big job—he’s vice president of Global Vehicle Engineering for General Motors Co. In this capacity, he also serves as president of GM’s Global Technology Operations. He is responsible for the engineering of GM vehicles around the world. He began his GM career in 1979 as a summer intern and officially joined GM in 1981 as an experimental engineer at the automaker’s Milford Proving Grounds. A fast tracker, Calabrese holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he was awarded an academic GM scholarship, and a Master of Science degree in Administration from Central Michigan University. Dan Jedlicka interviewed Calabrese at a meeting of the Midwest Automotive Media Association in October, 2013.

Q. In short, what exactly do you do?

A. I make sure GM , which has lots of creative people, do things basically the same way throughout the whole world, without getting in their way. In the 1920s, GM bought car companies in various countries, such as Opel in Germany, and then let them do things their own way. They had different parts suppliers, different products—and so on. That wasn’t very efficient, so we have consolidated operations. They now share efficient fundamentals and leading edge technologies.

Q. GM cars in the past few years have gotten advanced electronic features that I hear some people don’t really want or like. True?

A. Young consumers want such technology, but some older ones don’t want to change. We must ask ourselves if new technology is right for consumers, and make it affordable. We can make subtle technological changes that will delight our vehicle buyers. That’s not easy, but you’ve got to keep the game going. The world is changing faster. 

Q. Are other countries ahead when it comes to engineering schools?

A. I’m worried about the lack of America’s math skills among the young. GM now looks at elementary school education to see how things are going. With kids, you’ve got to get them when they’re young.

Q. How can you tell what your future buyers will want?

A. We hold consumer clinics all over the place, but sometimes clinic participants don’t  know what they want. But we need to listen to them and respect them. GM got into trouble when we kind of walked away from the customer. But the days of “If we build it, they will buy it” are gone. We need to know what’s going on in different countries and thus have global vehicle engineering centers throughout the world.   

Q. Doesn’t that make it tough for GM to plan future vehicles because you’re developing them years ahead of their official introductions?

A. You bet. Especially when different countries have different regulations (which influence design). For instance, the United States and Europe are especially focused on crash standards.Will consumers demand that we meet 2025 government requirements? We must have the most efficient plan. Will cars have aluminum bodies to help meet the increasingly stringent fuel economy standards? Will powertrains (engines and transmissions) be significantly different? We’re making multi-million dollar bets.

Q. That sounds like GM must make constant vehicle changes.

A. We must disrupt a vehicle’s development all the time to keep in step with, for instance, safety and fuel economy requirements. We must look ahead. For instance, will inside rearview mirrors, which will increase aerodynamic efficiency, do the same job as outside mirrors?      

Q. What if a new political administration comes in and tones down some of what many consider overly demanding future government requirements?

A. We can’t count on that. We must work to meet currently mandated requirements. However, the government will pause to assess future regulations in 2016.

Q. I read that younger folks aren’t as enthusiastic about cars as they once were.

A. One reason is cars once represented freedom and an escape from parents. But now, younger folks can use social media to do that. Our business models thus are changing.      

Q. With many young people unable to find a job or are out of work, are more of them buying used cars instead of new ones?

A. They could buy an older Cadillac for what a new, marginal car costs. But that Cadillac won’t have, for instance, the safety and other improvements of a new car.

Q. What do you think of the current controversy about EPA federal fuel economy numbers? Some automakers advertised such numbers if they got high ones, but then many people couldn’t obtain them with their vehicles?

A. That’s eroded the confidence of many consumers with the EPA. So it’s coming up with a different fuel-economy standard. We must ask ourselves, “Will potential customers look at a rival auto with a 26 mile-per-gallon rating and come to us if we have a 25 rating?

Q. What do you think about electric cars?

A. The whole auto industry is fighting for better batteries. Range anxiety is a major problem. Many wonder if a car’s battery power will hold out until they reach destinations.

Q. What about Tesla’s highly rated battery powered car?

A. Tesla has done a good job of challenging industry norms, which GM also must do. But will Tesla ever become a high-volume auto company?

Q. Will the internal combustion engine be with us for awhile?

A. Definitely. It’s still the most efficient thing around. We keep improving it all the time to get more power, better fuel economy and less emissions—and there’s significant improvements to be made. Look at today’s direct-injection and variable valve timing features. One of the biggest challenges is reducing internal engine friction. Reduce parasitic losses and you can reduce the number of cylinders of an internal combustion engine. Engine sizes are coming down. 

Q. So we’ll always have a high-powered Chevrolet Corvette, even if it has, for instance, a smaller-but-powerful and more economical twin-turbo V-6 available?

A. Yes.

Q. The new Corvette has sizzling acceleration, if you want it. But not everyone dreams of the fastest 0-60 m.p.h. time, do they?

A. No. My wife isn’t interested in a 0-60 time. She wants a good 40-70 m.p.h time for merging and passing on highways. It’s a question of safety. She’s also not interested in infotainment systems because she considers time in her car as her "down time."