GM's Mary Barra: A Cautious Thumbs-Up for Electric Cars

By · December 11, 2013

Mary Barra

Mary Barra, a 33-year GM veteran, has managed plants, led product development, and headed human resources—where she got a reputation for being good with people. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The first thing you need to know about Mary Barra, the first female CEO of General Motors—indeed, of any major auto company—is that she has a degree in electrical engineering. That’s how she started at GM, when she became an co-op student at the company’s Kettering University in 1980. She knows how EVs work, and doesn’t need a crash course in batteries and controllers.

Still Engaged With EVs

In a group interview at The New York Times’ Manhattan headquarters last month, before the CEO announcement, Barra said the company is “very committed” to electric cars, and that engagement with EVs “will continue to grow as we get higher energy density from batteries.” She also said that electrifying the automobile is a “big priority” at GM, and will become more of an international effort as countries develop regulations and standards.

Aside from saying nice things about Chevrolet Volt sales, and name-checking the Cadillac ELR as a new entry (and the Spark EV as “small but peppy”), Barra didn’t offer any bold pronouncements about how plugged in GM will become, or hint at new product. She’s extremely on-message and big picture, which is why she got the job.

A Cautious Executive

That’s not a knock on Barra, but she’s going to be very cautious as she expands General Motors’s foray into electric cars. As GM’s product chief (her job until Dan Akerson retires in January), she’s been an advocate for reducing the number of platforms the company has, and standardizing components across product lines. That could mean—I’d do it if I were her—producing a crossover version of the Volt, both to compete with Tesla’s upcoming Model X and to reach a big traditional market for GM cars.

Barra repeatedly identifies building cars as “a team sport”; she’s no maverick like former vice chairman Bob Lutz. But it was Lutz who pushed the Volt through the company’s staid culture, and it wouldn’t exist without this major global warming skeptic. Barra hasn’t put her prestige on the line in that same way—she’s a consensus builder.

Barra’s not identified with any particular car, though GM put out some very good ones under her product tenure, including the Cadillac ATS and the Chevy Impala. As The Times pointed out, she’s an advocate for fuel efficiency and lighter-weight cars. The latter will be very important to increasing range of cars like the next-gen Volt and Spark EV.

Chevrolet Impala

The Chevrolet Impala is a much-lauded car debuted during Barra's time as product chief. (Chevrolet photo)

Bottom-Line Thinking

Akerson wasn't a huge advocate for EVs. Though there are plenty of smiling photos of him with Volts, he publicly groused about losing money on them. But he predicted that the second iteration of the car, with lighter weight and as much as a $10,000 price reduction, will materially help the bottom line.

Barra is by no means anti-EV, but she’ll move carefully and weigh the business case for new entries, which is exactly what the company didn’t do much of when it pioneered the Volt. GM invested more than $1 billion in its range-extender platform, and selling 2,000 Volts a month (plus, starting in January, some Cadillac ELRs) isn’t going to turn that situation around. GM denies reports of big losses on every car sold, but it’s not likely to become a profit center in its first generation.

Asked why GM puts out so many muscle cars, Barra said, “A performance vehicle is important for halo sales.” That explains her nice words about the new Corvette, but does she also consider the Volt, ELR and Spark EV as halo cars? My guess is yes, but she also looks at impending state, federal and international regulations, and realizes EV investment is essential for the company’s future. “Electrification is increasingly important,” she said. As I said, Barra’s not the person for flamboyant quotes, but she’s not going to backtrack on plugging in the product line.


· · 18 weeks ago

The key question on this top is: Is she a bean counter or an engineer who has a vision for a company to design with high technology product. I think only time will tell.

Hopefully since she is an electrical engineer, she would at least share some of my visions to offer more electricfication of the GM fleet. After all, we have the same degree.

· · 18 weeks ago

Who knows, maybe she'll decide to sell the Spark EV nationwide or even internationally after all? One can always hope.

· · 18 weeks ago

Since we know from her predecessor (and linked in the article) that the Volt losses money, and the Spark EV is only built in absolute minimum quantity (about 500 total sold since July 2013) for California Air Resources Board (CARB) compliance-only, I'll bet they are losing their butts on the Spark EV, also.

That means that bean counters at GM will not expand the Spark EV beyond CARB states.

· · 18 weeks ago

I understand people love their volts and chevy sparks but in the real world they will only be a very small nich market, now lets see if she can turn this around for GM and electric car fans or even lead the way.

· · 17 weeks ago

"Asked why GM puts out so many muscle cars, Barra said"

Why would anyone need to ask this? Isn't it obvious?

Take the pocket protector out of your pocket, and stop asking stupid questions.

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