When Does Technical Brilliance Matter, and When Does It Not?

A technological marvel may not always translate into commercial success

Photo: Martin Klimek/General Motors

When you see something that is technically sweet," said J. Robert Oppenheimer, " you go ahead and do it, and argue about what to do about it only after you've had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb."

Each profession has a right to its own indulgence—technical sweetness for engineers, elegance for designers, contrarianism for journalistic pundits. It is not the professionals but their bosses who must curb such enthusiasms. Sometimes, though, the bosses are out to lunch.

A case in point is the Chevy Volt, a fundamentally new kind of hybrid gas/electric car whose corporate parent, General Motors, has chosen a technical solution that is not only sweet but courageous. Rather than hook an internal combustion engine to an electric motor in parallel—with the engine sustaining cruising speed and the motor helping with the acceleration—the Volt links its power plants in serial configuration. The motor alone drives the wheels, with the engine kept in reserve to recharge the batteries. This technology allows the car to realize many of the advantages of all-electric drive while extending its range with that still-unbeaten energy-storing medium, gasoline.

Sadly, this scheme costs a great deal to implement. That would be a mere detail if the car were a prototype backed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or some bored billionaire. The Volt might even make a certain devil-may-care economic sense to boutique car companies, such as Tesla Motors, that need only sell cars to a handful of rich people to stay in business.

Now for our contrarian view: The Volt won't sell in sufficient numbers to make a difference to General Motors. This wounded giant, recalled from bankruptcy by a US $57 billion federal bailout—the largest granted to any manufacturing concern in history—must sell the Volt in vast numbers to make even a slight change in its bottom line. And at the recently announced base price of $41 000—even with the $7500 tax credit factored in—the car just isn't going to rack up the kind of sales figures that will matter to GM. " There are not enough idiots who will buy it," Johan de Nysschen, the president of Audi of America, told auto writer Lawrence Ulrich, a contributor to this magazine.

Plainly, the bosses at GM were out to lunch. That, or they were so hard pressed by their company's economic troubles that they had to punt, hyping the Volt as the secret weapon that would turn the tide of war. In that sense, the company's gamble can be called a success: Congress wrote GM the necessary check, which has prolonged the life support.

The technologies that the Volt's engineers developed could make the world a better place many years from now, but by then GM may well have been broken up and sold for scrap. The moral of the story is that brilliant engineering doesn't translate reliably into commercial success, whether for a start-up or a long-running concern.

By the same token, a technical failing need not result in commercial failure. Consider Apple's iPhone 4, whose sweet-but-courageous solution to the problem of wireless reception involved wrapping two antennas around the edges of the device.

Hold the phone in a particular way—the infamous " death grip" —and you connect the two antennas, which will attenuate the signal and probably drop your call. Consumer Reports, the venerable nonprofit rater of consumer products, decided not to recommend the product; worse yet, comedians poked fun at what has become known as " antennagate." It was the glitch mocked round the world, in blogs and on TV talk shows.

Yet none of that seems to have made the tiniest dent in iPhone 4 sales, which are already in the millions. Apple says it is selling every single unit it can make. Tech glitches or no, Apple products have bold and clever industrial (as opposed to technological) design. They're stylish and captivating; GM's cars, not so much.

When does technical brilliance matter, and when does it not? It may be a question of pure luck or the equally unanalyzable quality known as charisma. GM long ago lost that charisma, and Apple has it—in truckloads. " For he that has, to him shall be given, and he that has not, from him shall be taken even that which he has."

This article originally appeared in print as "Technical Sweetness Isn't Enough."

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