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GM’s Big Leap Into EVs Is Classic Mary Barra

General Motors' CEO doesn’t jump until she’s got her rationale, plans, and resources in order – then she goes big.
Mary Barra, CEO of GM Credit:
GM’s Chairman and CEO Mary Barra at a shareholder meeting last year. Credit:

In headlining the rollout of the automaker’s comprehensive electric-vehicle strategy on Wednesday, General Motors Corp. Chairman and CEO Mary Barra once again demonstrated what has become a classic feature of her playbook as a business leader: Understand the long-term need for a change in direction, muster your powder, work diligently on a solution, make the case internally for transformation, re-array your forces behind the decision, and then – and only then – tell the world why it makes sense.

And oh, yes – stick by it.

Once again this week in helping explain GM’s detailed EV strategy to investors, journalists and other public constituencies at the company’s sprawling technical center in suburban Detroit, Barra revealed and detailed what amounts to a breathtaking leap by America’s bell-cow automaker. But she made it seem like the logic and planned execution of the company’s own EV revolution was unassailable.

“We’re bringing the power and might of General Motors to electric-vehicle sales,” she told the Wall Street Journal. As Barra said in a press release, “Our team accepted the challenge to transform product development at GM and position our company for an all-electric future. What we have done is build a multi-brand, multi-segment EV strategy with economies of scale that rival our full-size truck business with much less complexity and even more flexibility.”

Specifically, Barra, GM President Mark Reuss and other top executives detailed a $20-billion development strategy for EVs and autonomous vehicles that is to entail new battery technology and a new powertrain structure that will allow its vehicles to travel up to 400 miles on a single charge, topping Tesla’s projected range for its Model 3, which is 322 miles.

Among the major aspects of the company’s comprehensive approach to EVs overseen by Barra is new chemistry in the batteries that GM has developed in a joint venture with LG Chem and more flexibility in laying out the pouch-style battery cells to better accommodate each overall vehicle platform. In internal GM parlance, the new architecture better accommodates “pancake” – or horizontal — designs for the battery pack that may be better suited for bigger vehicles, as well as “toast” – or vertically oriented – arrangements of the cells for smaller and shorter vehicles.

Even more important, Barra’s push essentially will commit GM to an EV-dominant future, and de-emphasize its investments in gasoline power, even at a current moment when all-electrics have only captured a paltry share of the existing U.S. and global auto markets – and when the company’s gas-powered fleet of trucks and utility vehicles continue to provide bountiful profits that have ended up going into EV and AV development efforts.

The new approach to battery chemistry and architecture is to be embodied in about a dozen new EVs across GM’s brands, including a Chevrolet SUV, several Cadillac models, two Hummer models and a bigger version of the company’s pioneering all-electric model, Chevrolet Bolt, which hasn’t sold well in its original form that debuted a couple of years ago.

Attentive investors were impressed at what amounted to the most thorough and integrated game plan for an EV future that’s been presented by any automaker to date. GM “can show serious leadership decarbonizing its auto fleet” and do so profitably, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote immediately. Added Wedbush analyst Dan Ives, “We view today as another data point indicating the EV transformation is well underway with GM diving into the deep end of the pool and adding another element to the heated EV competitive landscape.”

This approach shouldn’t be a surprise coming from Barra. She has taken similar deliberate but determined approaches to each of the major inflection points on her watch, starting with getting her arms around the company’s ignition-switch fiasco at the beginning of her term, and including her 2018 decision to close a handful of old plants, her move for a clean-sheet approach for the company’s struggling Cadillac brand, and Barra’s decision to proceed with GM’s norm-shattering 2019 lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler Automotive that alleges a conspiracy at that rival between the top ranks of United Auto Workers officials and the late FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne.

After a six-year tenure at the helm of GM, the 58-year-old Barra is the undisputed dean of Detroit Three carmaker chiefs. With her classical auto-industry training and background — including a degree in electrical engineering, a Stanford MBA, and sequential oversight of core GM functions including human resources, global product development and the worldwide supply chain – Barra is a decided contrast to the Elon Musk Show. But at this point, arguably she is doing even more than the theatrical CEO of Tesla to advance the EV future of automobiles.


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