i3 | January 04, 2021

GM: Leading the Future of Mobility

Cindy Loffler Stevens

It has been 40 years since Mary Barra began her career with General Motors (GM) as a co-op student working at the Pontiac Motor Division in 1980 checking fender panels and inspecting hoods. Since then her career has been meteoric as she rose to become the highest-ranking female executive in the auto industry. She has served as CEO of GM since January 15, 2014 and Chairman of the GM Board of Directors since January 4, 2016 leading the legacy car manufacturer founded over a century ago in Michigan.

She is at the forefront of reimagining transportation. Barra earned her electrical engineering degree from General Motors Institute and her MBA from Stanford University. She has held various leadership roles within the company, including executive vice president of Global Product Development, Purchasing & Supply Chain, vice president of Global Human Resources, and vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering before earning the top post.

Under Barra’s leadership, GM envisions a world with zero crashes, to save lives; zero emissions, so future generations can inherit a healthier planet; and zero congestion, so customers get back a precious commodity — time. She is focused on improving the customer experience and strengthening GM’s core vehicle and services business, while also working to lead the transformation of personal mobility through advanced technologies like connectivity, electrification and autonomous driving. She is known for her inclusive leadership style and developed a set of core values that reflect the company’s objectives focused on customers, relationships and excellence.

She sits on many boards including the Walt Disney Company, the Detroit Economic Club and Stanford University Board of Trustees. She has earned numerous honors and was inducted in October into the Hall of Fame of the International Women’s Forum. In 2016, Forbes magazine named her the “World’s Most Powerful Woman in Business” and she has been honored every year since 2014 in the #1 or #2 slot on Fortune magazine’s list of the “Most Powerful Women in Business.” In 2020, Fortune also named Barra a “Hero of the Pandemic.”

Due to her vision, GM is heavily investing in autonomous and electric vehicles (EVs). She led the development of the Chevy Bolt EV that debuted at CES 2016, the first electric car priced under $40,000 with a range of 200 miles. Today the maximum range of its Ultium-battery-based vehicles has grown to 400 to 450 miles on a full charge.

GM plans to bring 30 EVs to market by 2025 and is hiring 3,000 engineers and technology specialists to ensure success. One of GM’s first all-electric vehicles is the GMC Hummer EV Supertruck and the Cadillac Lyriq, the first electric SUV. GM also has plans for three other GMC EVs, four Chevrolet EVs, including a pickup and compact crossover, and four Cadillacs, including the Lyriq, all based on the Ultium battery platform. The company plans to invest $27 billion in EVs and AVs through 2025.

Early in the COVID crisis, GM stepped up to build hospital ventilators to treat coronavirus patients. On August 31, GM and its partner Ventec Life Systems delivered the last of the 30,000 ventilators to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The order was completed in 154 days, with one ventilator made about every seven minutes.

Barra will present the opening keynote address during the all-digital CES® 2021. This will be the third time GM has keynoted at CES, following appearances at CES 2008 and CES 2016. She recently talked with i3 about GM’s plans for an all-electric future.

What differentiates the GM brand from other automakers?

We want to put everyone in an EV. General Motors is uniquely positioned to boldly take the auto industry into the future: we have the technology, manufacturing expertise and scale that we believe no one can match.

As GM's first female CEO, and the first woman to lead a major automaker, what lessons have you learned?

I’ve learned that the most important thing we can do to build a strong team is provide all employees with opportunities to advance and contribute to their full potential. At GM, we have a set of core behaviors that are the foundation to how we drive our business decisions and activities worldwide. One of these behaviors is to “be inclusive,” meaning to live moments every day that value backgrounds, opinions and ideas that may be different from your own. We have endless opportunities to learn from each other and everyone deserves to feel welcomed and valued for who they are. Over the years I’ve learned that a culture where employees can bring their whole selves to work is more likely to foster innovation and dedication.

How has COVID-19 impacted your business operations? How is GM handling new car launches in the wake of COVID-19?

I’m so proud of the GM team’s resilience and innovation. Despite the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, we pivoted our manufacturing footprint to quickly produce ventilators and masks. In total, GM achieved its goal to deliver 30,000 ventilators by the end of August 2020. And through it all, we never missed a beat on our electric vehicle plans — in fact, we accelerated them.

For example, in 2020, Cruise, the self-driving company majority-owned by GM, unveiled the Cruise Origin, a shared, self-driving electric vehicle developed by GM, Cruise and Honda; we revealed the Cadillac LYRIQ, an electric luxury SUV; and we revealed the world’s first all-electric supertruck during the World Series: the GMC HUMMER EV. Reservations for the HUMMER EV were full within 10 minutes.

With the Chevy Bolt introduced at CES 2016, do you see an all-electric future? Does this tie into smart cities?

Electric vehicles are the key growth strategy for General Motors, and will play a huge role in developing smart cities.

Cities across the world are getting smarter by introducing new technologies that sense and analyze data to help solve problems and create a more livable city — and in many cases a greener city. EVs will provide clean transportation for personal vehicles and in ridesharing — as we also strongly believe all autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be EVs.

Building all-electric vehicles with self-driving capabilities integrated from the start, rather than through retrofits, is the safest, most efficient way to unlock the tremendous potential and societal benefits of self-driving cars. A significant part of our vision is enabling self-driving transportation in city centers, which is why we’re so excited with the progress that Cruise is making in San Francisco. With the Cruise Origin, we think about AV technology not just as a service, but as a platform. Ridesharing and delivery are uses of that platform.

How are consumers reacting to EVs?

Consumers really love how fun EVs are to drive. Our Chevy Bolt EV buyers are among our most satisfied customers and our biggest ambassadors. We know customers want EVs that look great, charge fast and conveniently, and have the right combinations of range, power and performance. That’s why we’re focusing on all aspects of the EV ecosystem to accelerate customer adoption.

What is the status of charging stations nationwide? Are there other challenges to adoption?

Easy access to charging is essential to putting everyone in an EV and accelerating widespread adoption. We’re working with utility companies and charging networks to make sure charging is easy, fast, and affordable to use at home, work and on the go.

We’re collaborating with EVgo to install more than 2,700 fast chargers in cities and suburbs in the U.S., making it convenient to charge your car in the time it takes to run an errand. Drivers will be able to find these chargers and more than 40,000 others through our EnergyAssist feature. We also have a partnership with Qmerit to connect drivers with at-home charging installers and to triple the number of charging stations available at our GM facilities in the U.S. and Canada.

What are the benefits of autonomous driving? Is this also a strong focus for GM?

We believe the societal benefits and business opportunities of autonomous vehicles will be significant, and we intend for GM to be a leader in their development and deployment. Reshaping cities and the lives of those who live in them has tremendous societal implications. Since we believe that all AVs will be EVs, these efforts will advance our vision of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion, and help us build a more sustainable and accessible world. Self-driving cars are real, and they are going to help rewrite the rules of mobility.

Over the years I’ve learned that a culture where employees can bring their whole selves to work is more likely to foster innovation and dedication.

What is the biggest misperception of self-driving vehicles?

That they aren’t safe or you can’t trust them. However, 90% of crashes are caused by human error. AVs will eliminate human error, helping save millions of lives around the world. We’re committed to building safe and reliable autonomous vehicles; we believe they will provide huge benefits to our customers when it comes to safety, convenience and quality of life.

What is the role of data in connected cars? Are there new benefits including safety for consumers?

With tens of millions of lines of code in any given vehicle’s systems today, they are effectively computers on wheels. We are bringing to market technologies and features that are radically changing what vehicles can do for people to improve their lives. Connecting vehicles to each other, and in the years ahead, to traffic lights and roads around them so vehicles know how to avoid backups and collisions, and choose the most efficient routes, will reduce congestion and increase safety.

At the same time, customers are bringing more devices into the vehicle, expecting seamless integration. Part of our job is to ensure that both our customers and their data are always safe, secure and private. Privacy is an extension of security, and we fiercely protect it.

How is the trade situation/tariffs with China affecting your business?

China and North America are our largest markets for both global sales and in terms of their respective manufacturing footprints to serve those markets. We have a strong supply chain organization with a proven track record and robust processes to continuously monitor risk and respond quickly, which enabled us to avoid any North America production disruption during the COVID-19 shutdown in China. We continue to assess various “what if” scenarios as a part of our ongoing decision-making processes, we expect no significant change in our current strategies.

With so much disruption, where do you see GM in the next five years?

Moving quickly on our vision for a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.

Ultium, our highly flexible global EV platform, is a game-changer and the heart of our EV strategy on our path to an all-electric future. Ultium enables us to offer all different kinds of electric cars, trucks and crossovers at a variety of price points. It’s a differentiating technology platform bringing other companies to our doorstep and it’s what will power our next generation of EVs, which you’ll see over the next five years.

Can you tell us anything about your CES keynote?

General Motors is paving the way for an entire new way of transportation. Cars transformed society more than 100 years ago and gave people freedom, and we’re doing this again. Our all-electric future is underway right now. GM has the expertise, design, scale, technology and team to make it happen and I look forward to showing you more.

Tune in for Mary Barra’s keynote address at CES 2021 at 9:00 AM on January 12.

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