Barra’s EV Speech Tries To Steal A March On The Future

GM’s CEO underscores her determination to lead transformational change, stay in the industry vanguard, and challenge Silicon Valley.

Mary Barra, CEO of GM Credit: GM.comMary Barra is taking it to ‘em.

The CEO of General Motors enjoyed a triumphal appearance at the virtual Consumer Electronics Show this week that bumped GM’s stock price, drew a chorus of praise from analysts and, most substantively, detailed her aggressive approach to leading an electric-vehicle revolution at America’s largest automaker — and setting the pace of change for the industry around the world.

Specifically, Barra delivered the opening keynote for 2021 CES – an invitation that in itself represented an accomplishment in the era of Big Tech primacy – where she announced a handful of EV initiatives including BrightDrop, a new “ecosystem” of GM vehicles and services for last-mile delivery, and a new marketing campaign called “Everybody In,” meant to nudge the populace toward all-electric vehicles.

Contextually, the address underscored Barra’s determination to place and keep GM at the absolute vanguard of electric-vehicle development, manufacturing and marketing even as some competitors, and most consumers, aren’t yet so sure about the entire EV proposition. Barra’s appearance and topic at CES made it even clearer that she intends to stake the ultimate success of her tenure, and the prosperity of one of America’s iconic manufacturers, on the company’s embrace in the present of a future in EVs.

“At GM, we believe that after one of the most difficult years in recent history, this moment will prove to be an inflection point,” Barra said. “We’re spending more than $27 billion on our electric and autonomous vehicle programs by 2025, and we feel confident that the emphasis we are placing on a more personalized driving experience will make our future EVs some of the most enjoyable and exciting vehicles we’ve ever made.”

Notably, Barra isn’t operating in an industry leadership vacuum even in Detroit. Ford Motor’s new CEO, Jim Farley, for instance, has been moving fast to complete the rollout of new models such as the Bronco and Bronco Sport SUVs and the all-electric Mustang Mach-E, while Fiat Chrysler Automotive chief Mike Manley keeps bringing out one winning vehicle after another in a parade that this year will include the first seven-seat Jeep Grand Cherokee – built in Detroit.

And all of the Detroit Three CEOs have done a highly creditable job of guiding their manufacturing operations through the pandemic and of maintaining sales momentum behind their most expensive, and most profitable, vehicles, mostly pickup trucks and utility vehicles.

But Farley is still settling in at Ford, and Manley’s entire future purview is yet to be determined as FCA wraps up its merger with France’s PSA to become Stellantis. While they do that, Barra continues to lead from the front of the American industry as she has for most of her seven-year run in the job.

While Barra lately has been light on announcing new developments in autonomous vehicles, as most of the industry has slowed that push amid Covid, GM is taking it to Silicon Valley chiefs as well as their traditional auto-industry rivals. Apple is said to be back in the EV derby, for instance, while GM’s Cruise unit for making self-driving cars for GM and Honda is testing its vehicles on the streets of San Francisco, practically under the noses of avowed autonomous-driving rivals such as Google and Uber.

Barra’s attitude on EVs is redolent of the determined risk-taker she has been throughout her time at the top, which has included decisions to pull GM out of the “world’s biggest carmaker” derby by selling the company’s European operations; deep-sixing most sedans; shutting down the iconic manufacturing plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and other operations to cut costs before the car-sales cycle turned; and recasting Cadillac as the platform for the company’s EV and AV efforts. Along the way, Barra – an engineer by training – also pushed GM to develop its own advanced battery technology so that it wouldn’t be dependent on outside sources to power its push in all-electric vehicles.

Such actions by Barra “are evidence that GM is capable of transformative change, which is encouraging,” wrote Bank of America in an analysis after Barra’s CES speech on Tuesday. “Ultimately, we believe GM already has much of the pieces in place for its future business, with some incremental refinement/rationalization likely forthcoming.”

It’s likely no coincidence that Barra wanted to make an impression at CES five years after she stunned both the digital-tech and auto businesses by choosing to unveil GM’s innovative Chevrolet Bolt all-electric car in Las Vegas instead of where any Motor City automaker typically would have done it, at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, which occurred about a week later in 2016.

Also not coincidentally, the Detroit show announced this week – the time of year when it had been held for decades, through 2019 – that it’s giving up on a return of its show as long constituted until 2022 at the earliest. Changes in how automakers regard legacy auto shows such as NAIAS, as well as the logistical challenges of the pandemic, forced the show’s brain trust into that decision.