All over the American heartland, people buy double-cab Chevrolet Silverado pickups as family transport,

Detroit Motor Show - General Motors chief executive Mary Barra has often been heard to say the automotive industry will change more during the next decade than it has in the past half-century.

In 2016 alone, she points out, GM invested nearly $1 billion (R13.65 billion) to buy self-driving car technology startup Cruise Automation, sank $500 million (R6.825 billlion) into ride services company Lyft, and launched a new car-sharing brand, Maven, and a new electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt. The company is also expanding the range of services available via high-speed mobile internet connections embedded in millions of GM vehicles.

None of those high-profile moves, however, are likely to have much short-term impact on GM's bottom line.

For now and for years to come, GM will make money the way it did 60 years ago: By selling large vehicles built on steel frames, with V8 engines driving the rear wheels. In 1957, that technology was sold as a Chevy Bel Air. Today, it is packaged as a Chevrolet Silverado bakkie or a Cadillac Escalade SUV.

The company makes more than 90 percent of its profits in North America, the bulk of it from sales of trucks and SUVs.

GM president Dan Ammann said: "That business model has worked and continues to work. We believe that model will keep going, particularly in places where we are strongest, for a long time."

His company is pursuing a two-pronged strategy, aimed at the increasingly divergent segments of its home market.

In big cities along the coasts, GM is widening its efforts to capture urban consumers who are shifting away from traditional vehicle ownership and some day may get around by summoning self-driving cars with a smartphone.

"We're at the very infancy of that," Ammann said; ride sharing today accounts for less than one percent of all miles traveled in the United States. But if buying rides by the kilometre takes off, it could be a "significant" opportunity, he said.

Earlier this week in New York, Cadillac launched what it said was the industry's first service allowing customers to pay a monthly fee to drive any of the brand's models.

Making more V8s

GM has a different plan for the heartland - the states that backed Donald Trump for president, where pickups and SUVs sell by the hundreds of thousands and electric cars sell by the hundreds. 

The company is investing billions in US factories to expand production of large pickups and SUVs. According to Dan Nicholson, head of GM propulsion systems engineering operations, more than 90 percent of GM pickups are sold with V8 engines - but, as of now, GM does not have a V8 that can comply with the 2025 emissions standards - put in place by the outgoing Obama administration - without chasing away customers who like them the way they are.

The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, which includes GM, is lobbying the incoming Trump administration to revise those standards. GM is meanwhile working on improving the fuel efficiency of its V8 engines, Nicholson said, but current fuel economy rules could force the company to limit availability and raise the price of pickups with big engines.

Ford's F150 pickup has already already made the transition to V6 turbo engines - which now outsell its V8 pickups - along with aluminium body panels to reduce weight and fuel consumption.

Two audiences, two messages

GM's dual marketing strategies – one for the heartland, the other for the coasts – are on display at Detroit this week, with a large Chevrolet Traverse and a revamped GMC Terrain compact SUV, alongside the electric Bolt hatchback, which will be presented as one of Chevrolet family of SUVs, along with the hulking Chevrolet Suburban.

For urban customers, and an increasing number of younger customers who are less interested in car ownership, GM is preparing alternatives at a measured pace. Tesla's Elon Musk has said he intends to build 500,000 of his planned Model 3 electric sedans annually by 2020 - about six times the total number of battery cars sold in the US in 2106. By contrast, GM is apparently planning to build about 20 000 to 30 000 Bolts a year, many of which are expected to serve in Lyft ride hailing fleets.

GM vice president for strategy and global portfolio planning Mike Abelson said it would err on the side of building too few than too many to suit consumer demand.

"We'd rather have the problem of working fast to increase volume,"he said, "than build too many cars that sit in showrooms."

Uncertain future

The Bolt is now a big part of GM's efforts to appeal to urban audiences, especially in California, which is where the bulk of US electric car sales are because the state requires car companies an increasing number of 'zero-emission vehicles' each year. GM's market share in California is just 9.9 percent, compared to about 17 percent in the United States as a whole.

Compare that to the 27.4 percent market share that GM enjoys in Indiana, where people buy double-cab Silverado pickups as family transport, and you'll see why Maven is offering short-term loans of GM vehicles in a growing number of cities. Maven has about 8,000 vehicles in its fleet; GM sells more than eight times that many vehicles in a month.

Asked when Maven would be a significant contributor to GM's revenues, Maven CEO Julia Steyn laughed.

"Let me live until 2021," she said. "I'll tell you then."

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