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What Mary Barra says about GM’s future


One month before General Motors announced significant restructuring, plant closures, and workforce reductions, chief executive officer Mary Barra described the GM of the future onstage during a plenary session at CityLab Detroit.

While not unrecognizable, the GM of the future involves lots of electric and autonomous vehicles and various new ways of getting around, especially in our global cities. Tomorrow’s GM is focused on mobility, and if all goes to plan, the change will be rapidfire.

General Motors has grown to be the nation’s largest vehicle manufacturer over the past 100 years, but Barra believes its evolution into a technology company will take place in a fraction of that time.

In the onstage interview with David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media during the late October conference produced by The Atlantic, The Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies and held at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, Barra detailed the effect technology is having on the dynamic between people and their modes of transportation, and the lifesaving imperative of this disruption.

The single-ownership model that has become a way of life for so many Americans over the past century will evolve dramatically, with the potential to impact many cities across the globe within “single digit years, not decades,” says Barra.

“Technology is having an influence on the automotive industry and how people are going to move from point A to point B. How do we look at customer pain points and make it easier for everyone to move around?” asks Barra.

Pain points

With New York City as an example, Barra lists the downsides of individual vehicle ownership, from time-crushing congestion to parking woes to the cost of owning a vehicle that “most people use only six percent of the time.”

More ridesharing in fewer self-driving vehicles may just allow space-crunched urban areas better use of the three non-residential parking spaces that exist for every vehicle on U.S. roads.

Using often-quoted statistics, Barra explained to a collection of global city leaders--from Portugal to Tel Aviv and Anchorage to Scottsdale--that when more than 90 percent of road fatalities are caused by human error, automotive companies like GM have a responsibility to advance autonomous technologies that remove the human from the mobility equation.

“We believe in the science of global warming, and we believe in doing what is right for the environment,” says Barra. “We picture an all-electric vehicle future.”

Touching upon the deep innovation that GM has invested in, but which she admits the company is not sharing enough stories about, Barra shared with passion a commitment to an aggressive rollout of affordable EVs between now and 2023.

“We want it to be obtainable, desirable, profitable, and have the right range,” she says. “We have our best and brightest working to meet that objective.”

Triple zero

Simply put, GM’s future revolves around the triple zero equation.

“We are working hard for zero crashes, because safety is a priority. Zero emissions because we do believe we need to have that impact from an environmental perspective. And zero congestion, because for many people, the most important currency is time,” Barra says.

With significant investment in Cruise Automation, GM is the largest competitor to Tesla, Bradley pointed out, asking Barra to describe the fully-autonomous vehicles that are scheduled for availability in 2019.

She detailed a third-generation Cruise Automation model with a steering wheel and brakes, and a fourth-generation model without these elements, adding stakeholders are working with legislators to update federal regulations that require vehicles have these components.

“We can launch in either fashion,” Barra says.”But think about when you don’t need a steering wheel and pedals, [the car can become] a more productive space. We are imagining that right now, and that's really exciting.”

Admitting that the technology is the hardest factor of the equation, the “biggest, hardest technological challenge we will face in the decade, maybe in our lifetimes,” Barra says that once AV technology is established, widespread adoption is a matter of how fast GM can roll these vehicles off the line.

“We already have the ability to scale it,” she says.

When all autonomous vehicles are electric vehicles, however, the charging infrastructure component is critical, and creative solutions exist in the collaborative work that includes city planners and urban developers.

“As there is dialogue about the right fuel economy standards, let’s commit as a nation to electric vehicles. We don’t want to lose leadership. If we commit and work together to get the infrastructure and help customers understand and make the transition, we can have a very significant number of vehicles on the road,” Barra says, adding that she believes customers are rational and will make the decision to adopt EV technology.

“It’s not just about the automotive companies, but it’s about governments, both city, state, and local working together. And frankly, it should be a call to action for all of us to be doing that.”


Photos courtesy of CityLab Detroit.
 
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