How Do Automakers Avoid Spy Shots?

In the high-stakes game of automobile innovation, spy shots are often used to get sneak peeks at the competition, or just an early look at the latest, greatest models. Some spy-shot photographers have turned this into a career, selling the pictures to industry publications and enthusiast websites.

As a matter of fact, because of the rapid growth of the internet, over five thousand auto publications compete for readership every day and pay extremely well for the shots of vehicle prototypes. Add camera phones and digital cameras to the mix and you end up with an auto industry that is constantly searching for ways to protect their ideas from public exposure.

Many years ago, disguising a vehicle meant only a few strips of cleverly applied black tape. Soon after that came the method of adding bras or bibs that change front and rear detail and shape.

In 2008, GM’s Opel division freely reported on their use of camouflage on the new Insignia. They released their own spy shots along with a press release about the process. They used a vinyl cover over the car to cause a ripple effect in digital photos and modified the vehicle by adding foam adhesive to dull the lines. They even added a fake rear spoiler to change the shape of the car.

Automakers have become even more creative since then. In addition to the patterned materials covering the cars, plastic panels are sewn together with nylon and added to the vehicles to change the shape completely. Taillight shapes can be changed to give a boxier appearance, and they even go as far as adding another company’s badge to the car to add to the mystery.

Engineers such as Tim Herrick, who works for GM, have to deal with testing the camouflaged vehicles in order to avoid early exposure to the media. He says, “We engineers hate this camouflaged stuff.”

Nick Twork was recently interviewed by an MSNBC contributor concerning his work on both sides of the issue: as an amateur spy-shot photographer and his current work for General Motors as the head of public relations for Cadillac.

Twark says he is adamant about protection from spy shots, warning against practices such as leaving company grounds driving a prototype, concealed or not. “I’ve been pretty vocal about things that can lead to a spy shot,” he says.

These days the stakes are even higher for automakers and competition is rough. Protecting their new models from premature media exposure is vital if companies wish to compete in today’s market.

Posted in In the News

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