Electric vehicle maker Tesla has had some good days lately as sales of the Model S have exceeded expectations as much as the company's profits, thanks in no small part to innovative thinking that has resulted in mass sales of ZEV credits to other manufacturers, free charging stations, 90-second battery swaps and manufacturer-owned dealerships. All of this has the attention of General Motors, who views Tesla as a disruptive force to the auto industry and as a threat to the 104-year-old automaker.

Case in point: GM recognizes that Tesla must be doing something right if it can sell more of its $69,900 Model S sedans than the $39,145 Volt. So what is GM doing about it? Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson assigned a small team to study Tesla so the company won't be caught off guard in the future. In an interview with Bloomberg, Steve Girsky, GM vice chairman, said, "History is littered with big companies that ignored innovation that was coming their way because you didn't know where you could be disrupted."

GM was one of those big companies at one point, and it hasn't quite broken that mold. It has struggled to move on from the old, inefficient practices of its past, leading Akerson to chide employees at a recent conference in Houston because so many in-house patents had failed to be commercialized and implemented in GM designs. This, of course, resulted in a huge research-and-development budget that was wasteful. But Akerson knows that GM must rely on innovation and a tight focus on technologies that customers want if it is to be profitable and survive in the long term.

Ultimately, it seems GM is looking at Tesla to help establish a healthy culture of innovation, as the company is stinging from the success of the Model S. But at least it's looking at a glass that's half full.

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