Mary Barra is ready for the future
After dealing with the past, GM's CEO wants to talk about what's next
By Chris Ziegler
Mary Barra, a Stanford graduate, engineer, and three-decade veteran of General Motors, was just 77 days into her new job as the company’s Chief Executive Officer when she was summoned to testify before Congress. A lingering ignition problem was affecting millions of GM vehicles, and had been tied to 13 deaths. It would be the first of several agonizing appearances for Barra in Washington, as representatives peeled back layer after layer of missed opportunities to mitigate one of the biggest safety disasters in modern automotive history.
The massive waves of recalls had been brewing for years, long before Barra took the helm, but it came to a head while the paint was still drying in her Renaissance Center office. She had to play the hand she’d been dealt.
The only way out — both for Barra and for GM — was to accept responsibility and make an exceptionally convincing promise that a similar debacle could never happen again. To that end, she told lawmakers of the firings she’d swiftly overseen, the appointment of a vice president of global safety, and deep-rooted cultural shifts she was enacting inside the company. "I know some of you are wondering about my commitment to solve the deep underlying cultural problems uncovered in this report," Barra told lawmakers last June, referring to a damning report on the botched recalls delivered to GM’s board by former US attorney Anton Valukas. "The answer is I will not rest until these problems are resolved. As I told our employees, I am not afraid of the truth. And I am not going to accept business as usual at GM."
Now, a year later, the crisis mode is behind her and Barra finally sounds able to look forward. And her forward-looking GM is a fascinating one: there’s the promise of the Chevy Bolt, a Tesla-fighting $30,000 electric car that the company says will get around 200 miles on a charge (in talking about going up against Tesla, she tells me that Chevrolet’s EVs are "designed for everyone, not just the elite"); the second-generation Volt is just months away from hitting dealerships; and the latest Corvette Z06 is the most exciting American performance car in ages (the forthcoming Ford GT notwithstanding). And all of this is happening amidst a sea change in the way drivers — especially smartphone-addled younger drivers — expect to interact with their cars and the world around them.
But first on General Motors’ agenda is the redesigned Cruze, a small, global vehicle designed to appeal to that very same set of young, tech-native drivers. To call it a critical launch is an understatement: last month, GM sold more Cruzes in the US than it did all Buick models combined. Ahead of the new Cruze’s introduction, last week I sat down with Barra in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood for a wide-ranging interview about the company’s present and future — particularly around electrification and the advent of the connected car. The news of the day, the Cruze, seemed like a good way to kick things off.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Chris Ziegler: I think the Cruze is a good place to start.
Mary Barra: The Cruze is very exciting.
It’s a big launch for you. And it’s a global vehicle, right?
Right, right. And if you look at the first-generation Cruze, it was really where I think General Motors had a serious contender in that segment. Now [we’re] really working and understanding the customer, taking it to the next level. When you look at the connectivity that we have in that vehicle, the safety features we have in the vehicle, I think it’s very important because the car sells globally in significant volumes.
Those safety features are standard?
Standard features. Generally, you’ve got to look to a premium or a luxury brand, and clearly in the compact space, [the Cruze is] leading from a safety perspective. And then what we’re doing with connectivity, we have entries out there — you’ve probably critiqued them and you know where they can improve. But [we’re] looking at taking that to the next level, really understanding what the customer wants. And whether they have an Apple or an Android, to me, the real opportunity we have — and we’re just starting to scratch the surface — [is that] there’s so much information available in the car that we can marry with outside data to really provide value for the customer, make their life easier, make their life more convenient, provide services they didn’t know existed. So I think you’ll see us doing that as we go forward, and it’s really that integration.
I know we’re all addicted to our smartphones, and I’ll say, if I forget my smartphone, I go home and get it. And so understanding how to integrate that technology into the driving experience, both the front seat and the passenger seat and the back seat, I think is very important. So I think you’ll see how we’re doing that. But it’s also focused on what the customer wants — their phone works quite well, so why wouldn’t we enable them to use certain functions, whether it’s their music or whatever? But then, like I said, where I think we’re going to surprise and delight with everything else we can do — some [functions] through the phone, but some through the unique system in the car to really provide value.
When you say the unique system in the car, that could be Cadillac CUE, or…
Yeah, or Chevy MyLink. And so you’ll see more things as we go forward we’ll be able to do.
I think it’s very interesting that you’re putting features that were considered really high-tech even five years ago into the whole lineup, all the way down to the Spark. But historically, technology has been a differentiator for the premium segment. So, do you maintain that distinction between technology in, say, an ATS or CTS or CT6 versus the technology that’s going into a Spark? How? Even the Spark — once you add Android Auto and CarPlay to the car, it becomes a very high-tech rolling gadget.
Right. And I think what we’re trying to do, especially if you look at Chevy, we’re trying to make technology that’s going to benefit everyone, available to everyone — not just make certain technologies that are only for the elite. It’s really the whole democratization of technology. So when you look at Chevy’s brand promise — its value, its safety, its "wow" features — we’re looking by segment at what’s important to that customer and then making sure we put that technology in that vehicle.
There are still special things that we’re going to have for a luxury brand like our Cadillac brand or in some cases even Buick — where it may take it to the next level. It may be something that the customer can buy [as] an option that really is a premium from not only the cost perspective of putting it into the vehicle, but again, something that customers are willing to pay for added convenience. Or when you look at V2V [vehicle-to-vehicle] communications, we’ll have that. And the Super Cruise technology.
Some technologies, to your point, you do put on luxury and then you learn customer acceptance and then you scale it across. One of the benefits General Motors has is tremendous scale. A lot of the features you’ll see us putting standard on the Cruze are features that we know customers are going to love. Some of the technologies, once you have [them] in a car, you’re like, "Wait! Why isn’t this happening? Why isn’t it warning me about this, or making sure I don’t do that in this circumstance?"
So again, I think it’s understanding that customer, but leveraging the scale that General Motors had, the learning we’ve had, and putting those as standard. One of the clear things we want to make sure we differentiate ourselves on is being the safety leader. And that’s not only how we design the car from a crash-rating perspective, but the features we can put in [it] to make sure people are safe as they drive.
So you mentioned V2V, which is obviously a safety feature. I got a demo of that a couple years ago at CES and was really blown away by what that could mean for vehicle safety. Is the plan to push that as rapidly as possible throughout the line? I know you’re debuting that on Cadillac, but what is the plan for V2V?
I think that when we start, it’s to learn; it’s to put it into the vehicle. To have V2V and I2I [infrastructure-to-infrastructure] really work, it’s an investment. I mean, you can do a lot [of testing] in the lab, [but] it’s [not] until you can get the technology into the market, into customers’ hands, you see the benefits, you see how you can leverage. Like we’ve seen with almost any technology, you can do so much more than you initially think. So [to] get the technology in the vehicle and learn, that’ll help guide the direction of where we take it.
Also, looking at what’s happening in the entire landscape, the regulatory landscape: we demoed that technology to regulators around the globe so they understand where we’re headed. But I think it’s another step. I know a lot of people are making predictions [that] we’ll have autonomous vehicles here or there. Frankly, when I look at it, we have the technology to do autonomous vehicles right now. There [are so many things] along the way that we need to do, and one of the most important is customer acceptance. So to me, it’s about intelligent driving systems, and it’s about making sure that when [customers] think of the new Cruze, the features that make them safer, and then taking them on that journey. I mean, when you get to a point… I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to drive Super Cruise…
For a person like yourself who’s driven for a few years at least, it’s a little eerie to take your hands off the wheel. So I think what’s very important is to make sure we take customers and drivers along with us, because it’ll be a journey of assisting all, making it safer on the way to full autonomous, which I think will vary in different countries, in different areas. But I think getting out there, learning, being first to get the technology into the marketplace is key.
I wonder if it’s a matter of education versus a matter of a generational shift in the way you think about driving. Self-driving is a great example, because I’ve had a chance to sit in a few cars that are autonomous, and you’re right — you get in, and it’s like, "Whoa! Why is the car moving?" Is it something that’s going to click for people below a certain age, and not click for anyone above that age?
Like with most technologies, there will be the early adopters. Think about my parents as an example — they passed away about a decade ago, but they never [used] a bank machine. I don’t know if any of us would live without a bank machine.
"We have the technology to do autonomous vehicles right now."
So I think there will always be some generational comfort, but [with] autonomous — or like I like to call it, intelligent driving systems — I think it’s even a step more, because there’s just more of an aspect of trust that you’ve got to establish. And that’s why I think it’ll happen over time, as you build that [trust]. Because it’s trust in the specific technology, and it’s trust in the vehicle manufacturer and how they’ve integrated it into the vehicle.
To me, the whole issue is how is it going to interface and integrate into the environment. Think of the streets of New York — the jogger that runs out, or the dog, all the things that aren’t in a laboratory environment. More so than trusting your bank to put in that little plastic card, [the challenge] is going to be really understanding the technology enough that you trust it with what could be, in some cases, life-threatening situations.
Clearly regulation is a sticking point for a paradigm shift as big as intelligent driving. To what degree is GM involved in rule-making and helping governments around the world be at the leading edge of that, versus a rule comes in and you say, okay, that’s the law of the land?
Well, we try to be very active. And, you know, [in] this country as well as many other countries, also with the Society of Automotive Engineers — it’s a great place for OEMs to come together and say, okay, what’s the best way to do it? Because we can all figure out a pretty good way, but if we all do it together, there’s a greater good. So we’re very active — in many cases, we lead the councils in the Society of Automotive Engineers. We regularly [talk to] regulators to say, "Okay, here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we see it." Do you see it a different way, or can we share this with you so you have the same experience that we have?
So we try to be very involved, because at the end of the day, they are our regulators and they have a very important role. But there [are] some places where we can work together and advance the industry. When you look at what most regulations are written for, it’s for people to be safer. If we can help advance that, we will do that, and I think we demonstrated a couple different technologies local to the US to NHTSA so they understand where we’re working and [we've] taken their feedback and we’ll continue to do that.
NHTSA seems pretty proactive about trying to get ahead of the regulatory framework for some of this stuff, but there’s still a long road ahead. Are you concerned that at end of the day, that’s going to be [the bottleneck]? What is the long tail for rolling this stuff out?
You know, that’s a good question. I actually think the regulators are trying to move very quickly with industry, and partner with them — in some cases lead and in some cases say, okay, here’s what we can do, let’s get that quickly. I think in some cases there are going to be legal issues that have to be addressed. I attended a conference on intelligent driving systems, and the insurance industry — it’s very clear that their first [concern is]…
Exactly. How does that change in a way that doesn’t transfer responsibility to someone who is not accepting, not aware, or someone who doesn’t make sense? It’s almost like you’ve got to take the whole ecosystem and adapt to the technology what it can do, and therefore be fair about it. And obviously, any time you have a dramatic shift, and you have multiple parties involved, everyone tries to advance their personal position.
That’s why I think it’s so important that we look at this from the customer perspective. If you step back and say, "Hey, this is about safer driving, it’s about less congestion, it’s about safety, it’s about reducing fatalities and injuries on the road, that’s where we’re going, it’s the right place." Now, how do we all move there together and adjust the system so it’ll have a better outcome for everybody, [while] making sure that one group or one faction doesn’t try to, you know, over-index at the detriment of what the end goal is?
Let’s keep pushing on the next generation [of drivers]. Future drivers are smartphone-native and internet-native. And there are certain expectations that come with that. Over the next five to 10 years, car buyers are certainly going to expect a baseline of tech features that didn’t even exist five years ago. CarPlay and Android Auto are a good example.
I think you’re absolutely right, and I think it’s a huge opportunity. That’s why at GM, and specifically Chevrolet, we’re putting so much focus not just on new technology, but technologies that really add value for the customer’s in-vehicle experience.
And Chevy’s probably [targeting a younger audience] than, say, Cadillac, for obvious reasons.
Yeah, it’s our brand that provides tremendous value, so for a lot of people it’s their first vehicle. But I can tell you I know people who wouldn’t buy anything but a Chevrolet. Because, again, the loyalty and the car’s been there, delivered for them. If you haven’t, you should drive the Impala. The Chevrolet Impala.
Yeah, I’ve driven the Impala; it’s a great car. [This is true; I drove a review vehicle some time ago, and it’s pretty fantastic for a large sedan. -Ed.]
Yeah, when you look at the value in that car. So I think we’ll continue to look at what technology we can put in the vehicle, whether it’s integrating from a connectivity perspective, or electrification when you look at the next-generation Volt and the Bolt EV. Look at gen-one Volt to gen-two Volt, the amount of improvements we’ve made in the energy density, the efficiency of the battery. We did incremental improvement through the life of gen-one Volt, but in gen two, we’re taking another giant step.
And we listened to the customers. [Volt customers] are some of the most satisfied customers in the industry, not just for General Motors, but for the industry, [and we listened] to them. And then also looking at electrification — when you look at the Bolt EV, [it’s] truly a breakthrough to say we’re going to go 200 miles without a charge, and it’s going to be in that around $30,000 price range, really making sure that’s available to everyone.
Speaking of Volt and powertrain advancements, I don’t think anyone disagrees that fossil fuel is ultimately a dead end, right? It’s a question of when — 10 years or 100? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would assume that GM shares that opinion, so the question is how quickly you can push technologies that aren’t just extended-range electric, but full electric like the Bolt across the range? Can you get them affordable enough? I know that Bolt is a part of that equation, but you have products like the [Corvette] Z06, which, considering what it is, is a very fuel-efficient vehicle. But long term, you’re going to have to investigate alternative powertrains for that. So how quickly can you push that through the range? And is that something you’re trying to do?
Absolutely. We see electrification across Chevrolet and across the different portfolios having its place. I personally think the internal combustion engine, when you look at the improvements we’ve made [in] fuel efficiency and continue to do, I think the technology will tell us when certain changes [need to be] made. The battery technology, again, I reference how much improvement we’ve seen. When you start to build something, build it in scale, learn, you find ways to continuously improve and then leapfrog. We work with some of the preeminent battery suppliers. We already do our own battery assembly.
So we’ve got all that learning, and we’ll continue to push the envelope on what the range can be and the energy density of the battery — because it’s range, it’s the size, and it’s the cost. We’re pushing on all three, and continue to work both inside the company and with strategic partners to drive that. When you look at the Volt and the Bolt EV concept and the broad statement we made, it’s an area we want to lead. I think we’ve got some pretty good proof points.
But by the same token, you also are staring down the barrel of much stricter federal emissions standards.
Well, absolutely. And that’s why I think you look at the technology, and [decide] what is the most efficient way. I believe the customer is extremely rational, and they’ll say, am I going to buy this internal combustion version? Am I going to buy light electrification? Am I going to buy a Volt? [It depends] on their use case, and they’re going to do the math. And, you know, assume a range of fuel prices. I think as long as we keep pushing on the electrification side of it, keep pushing that closer so the math works [and] they can make a rational choice, I think we’ll continue to push on the electrification and continue to have more and more sales and volume there.
You know, one of the things we’ve learned on the Volt — the Volt’s been out since 2010 — [is that] there are still a lot of people who will say to me, "But what happens when the Volt’s battery dies?" And they don’t understand that there’s the extended range capability. So some of it is education as well.
But ultimately, the goal is to have a Bolt type of product, presumably? Right? I mean, long term? We just saw some new numbers come out that suggest that the recent drop in fuel prices has significantly increased the percentage of hybrid and EV buyers who are trading in for SUVs. Point taken about the consumer being rational, but maybe they’re hyper-rational where they’re making very localized decisions based on literally today’s fuel price, and today’s fuel price isn’t next year’s fuel price. So to what degree is GM responsible for telling the consumer that they need to move toward electrification versus them making their own choice?
I think most customers in any industry don’t want to be told what to do. I think what our job is, and what we work really hard on, and we want to lead, and again, I think we have proof points on the board, is to continue to put electrification solutions, hybrids… I mean, we even have a partnership on fuel cells. So to continue to push on all aspects, how do we improve the efficiency and reduce any impact to the environment? We’re going to continue to push on all of those, and again, that’s an area we want to lead in.
"I think most customers in any industry don’t want to be told what to do."
When you look at the Spark EV that we have out right now, the [next-generation] Volt, we’ve had electrification in some vehicles that customers said, "Eh, not that interested." But we continue to put it out, learn, and even when you have a product with electrification that maybe wasn’t the success that you thought it was in the marketplace, you really learn. It’s something where we have to point to all the vehicles we already had in market that have had electrification, because that’s all built our learning and said okay, well, it didn’t work there, but we used that technology and that allowed us to leapfrog and move quickly here. We’re committed to making sure we have the most efficient solutions across the board, and then we’re not forcing the customer to do something. My view is always, how much choice can I give them that’s also regulatory compliant or beyond?
So, blue sky, I imagine this is something you’ve thought about: at the end of the decade, what percentage of GM’s sales are electrified?
You know, any time anybody’s tried to make a prediction, they’ve been wrong, including heads of state! I don’t want to guess at that. But what I will tell you is we’ve also built tremendous flexibility. It’s one of the reasons we have our own battery assembly plant that’s configured to not only do light electrification but also full electrification — to make sure that we can quickly respond to the customer demands. And continue to look across a wide range of vehicles.
Let’s talk about the batteries for a second. You mentioned that you assemble them yourself. But the cells themselves — are you running into scale constraints? Tesla obviously is shouting from every mountaintop that scale is a problem, Gigafactory is a thing. Would you buy batteries from Tesla? Or maybe more to the point, would you build your own cells?
We have a lot of different areas where we’re doing R&D on our own, where we’re working with key suppliers, where we’re partnering with universities. We’re going to continue to do that. So much for me from a battery perspective is, you can get so far with the cost and the energy density, but what’s the next breakthrough? I mean, a few years back, no one was touting that they were going to [have] the efficiency that we’re going to do [with] the Chevrolet Bolt EV, you know, that kind of battery capability. There’s going to be much more to be done and there will be more breakthroughs in battery technology to truly get to a wide fleet offering. When you look at the scale that we have — we work with some pretty important and significant battery makers already. We’ll continue to do that, along with, like I said, from startups to well-established battery companies.
[Battery companies like] LG Chem?
Yeah. We’re already doing that, we have our own projects with universities. Electrification will be key in China, [and] we have SAIC who’s our partner there. Another opportunity for scale. So I think we’ve got the flexibility. I’ll never say never to anything, but when I look at where it’s going, to me, the chemistry and the breakthroughs are so important, and that’s where we’re really focusing. Because frankly, then, to get it made is not usually… that’s not the biggest challenge that I’ve seen.
As we did the Bolt and Volt development, and again, that’s [the battery manufacturers’] major business, they know how to do that. We made the decision to assemble just because we wanted to have the flexibility to really optimize it into the vehicle, and that’s where we, you know, as we were kind of doing this new area, I was involved in that space. We made the decision of where we’re going to, what we’re going to do in-house versus not, because what we need to control to have the best integration, best quality, best performance. If something changes, we’ll continue to re-evaluate that. But [we have] pretty strong partners we work with right now on the actual cell.
This goes back to younger buyers and drivers — again, super smartphone-native — are used to configurability, and "hacking" their phone to do what they want it to do. What is GM’s stance on very deep customization of the vehicle, and to what extent can a car become like a giant smartphone? Can enthusiasts hack their car? I think of the Woodward Dream Cruise type of folks who are really going deep on their cars from the ’60s and ’70s, and customizing them and doing what they want with them. How does that translate into a 21st-century vehicle, and to what extent are you keeping the electronics of the car locked down? Because I think of a car buyer today, their idea of customizing their vehicle is much more high-tech than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
So I think if you look at a Cadillac CUE or look at the new Corvette and the amount of customization you can do of what you’re seeing here and what you’re seeing on the display, it’s incredible. We also have an obligation. So when you kept saying "hack," I hate the word "hack." That’s what I worry about! So we’ve gotta strike that balance of how much configurability can we have that we allow the customer to do, but then how do we do that in an environment that still doesn’t let someone who has less honorable goals in mind.
Safety is my overriding priority, because unlike a lot of other things that can get hacked, they don’t have necessarily deadly consequences. So we’re going to want to provide as much customization and flexibility for the consumer [as we can], but the foundation will be that it’s safe. And I actually think that the customer will respect that.
"I hate the word ‘hack.’ That’s what I worry about!"
Do you want something that, yeah, you can get in and change, but so can someone else too easily? No, you want to make sure you’ve got a system that you can make be exactly what you want but it’s going to operate that way and you can trust it. Because think about the relationship we have with our vehicles. You’ve got to be able to trust it. And so, to me, we place a high importance on that, we’ve invested greatly in it, we have expertise in-house, and we consult with some of the best people around the globe to make sure. Because it’s something that is evolving at lightning speed, and we want to make sure that we provide that balance. And frankly, I’ve been in the industry my whole life, and when you look at it, I think there’s so much we can allow people to do that I think we can strike a happy chord there.
This is building off something that you said at Code Conference — you mentioned that you see very tight integration between the car systems and Android Auto and CarPlay. You think that that’s sort of the way it’s going, versus ceding control of the dashboard to Google and Apple. But I’m wondering if you can expand on that a bit, because really what you’re asking customers to do is deal with two user interfaces, right? And maybe that’s not the most user-friendly way to do it. So, looking forward five or 10 years, as you go into the second and third generations of these systems, explain what you mean by "integration."
So as I see it down the road, your customer likes to do what they can do on their phone because it’s easy. Right now, we’re allowing people to bring their phones and then have what they do easily and bring that into the vehicle. But there is so much more that we can to do integrate to provide value for the customer with the vehicle, that my vision is there’s no ceding of anything here. But my clear vision is there’ll come a point in time where intuitive is intuitive, and if you can do it and have access, and the stuff you need from there is there and it’s integrated, there’s so much we can provide. People don’t even really think about it yet. Same way, until you had your first app, and now, how many apps do you have? Think about it that way. So this first generation, yeah, there’s some switching back and forth, but my vision is we go forward, we’re going to welcome a variety of phones, seamless for the customer, but very well integrated for the customer by us.
Portrait photography by Nancy Borowick
Edited by Michael Zelenko