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Exclusive: GM CEO says EV adoption needs to shift from ‘regulatory-driven to customer-driven’

Last week, General Motors unveiled an entire portfolio of about a dozen electric vehicles that it plans to sell in the next four years. At the event, we had the chance to speak with Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive. We asked Barra about EV profitability, regulations, and the big-ness of most of its upcoming electric vehicles.

In January, GM president Mark Reuss told us, “Our next-gen EVs will be profitable from Day One.” So we started there.

Electrek: You said that your EVs will be profitable in the first generation. Does that mean the first vehicle out the door or across the entire generation?

Mary Barra: That starts next year when we start selling the GMC Hummer EV truck. What I will say is that [profitability] will come very, very early in the Ultium platform, which we used to call BEV3.

So, your EVs will be profitable in the course of the first generation, in the first year or so?

I’m not going to give you the specific year. But I’d say very, very early in the generation that starts next year.

All these vehicles are going to help you guys with reducing emissions. Right?


So under what conditions would you decide to strike a deal with California and remove yourself from the opposition to the state creating its own emission standards?

We work regularly with our regulators around the world and clearly in the United States – with the EPA, with NHTSA, and with CARB. We have high respect for all of them. And we’re hopeful of finding a solution.

When you look at all the EVs we have on the road right now, the Bolt, and the second generation with the Bolt EUV coming out next year, we are extremely committed.

Couldn’t you then take leadership by saying that you can meet any standard that’s out there because of all these EVs?

When you look at the volume that General Motors sells and the customers that we have, we need to help everybody get there. We think that the solution is EVs, not hybrids.
But you have to make sure you have a robust charging infrastructure. You got to make sure that you have the price points where a person can buy the vehicle when it’s their only vehicle that they have to depend on day in and day out.

They can’t say okay, now I’m going on a road trip, and I switch to this other vehicle in my garage. And so that’s why we’re working so hard on the charging piece. And we’re working so hard on getting the battery costs down.

Are you saying that won’t happen tomorrow? (Note: More than a million US EV drivers already rely on EVs every day.)

We’re working as quickly as we can to have people buy electric vehicles because that’s what they want. That’s the way to sustain it for the long term. And the quicker you change it from regulatory-driven to customer-driven, that’s how you win.

That’s how we convert this company, this country, and the globe faster because we do believe in climate change. And so that’s why we’re working on everything we are. So I’m very hopeful that we can get a resolution. We do believe that one national standard is going to accelerate that. But we have high respect for all of the regulating bodies, and we continue to talk to all of them, and our hope is that we find the right solution.

I believe you’re saying that EVs need to be appealing, and that’s partly based on a certain vehicle size. But some of these vehicles are very big and not seemingly aerodynamic. How do you strike the right balance with these large vehicles?

There’s aero work done on the GMC Hummer EV and the SUT. That’s one of the skill sets that General Motors has. We have our own wind tunnel on property to do that work, to optimize the design at a refined level. And so when you look at the scalability that we have with the Ultium pack and system, we can go from small to large, and that’s what we plan to do because we have to hit each segment for the functionality that customers need to live their daily lives.

What can you tell us about how aggressively you’re going to raise volumes for all of these EVs?

We’ll go aggressively as customer demand, and we were working hard to create the demand. I think you’ll see us be very aggressive.

Electrek’s Take

It’s not surprising that Barra responded to the thornier questions by sidestepping to familiar refrains: a call for one national efficiency standard – and the need to answer consumer demand.

As CEO, she measures her answers not only to satisfy the chorus of voices calling for more EVs but a wide range of stakeholders, including GM’s current customer base, dealers, and Wall Street. Directly following GM’s presentation of new EVs to media, the company held a session for investors.

Another reporter challenged the company’s assertion that it will become a leader in EVs with this question:

If you look at your stock versus Tesla’s, Wall Street’s judgment seems to be that Tesla is the future in electric vehicles, and General Motors is not. How do you convince the investor community that that’s not the case?

Barra replied:

If you understand our approach to chemistry, our approach to how we can do a wide range of vehicles, and how customer-focused we are so you get large-scale EV adoption, you have to get to the point where a person is choosing to buy an electric vehicle when it’s going to be their only vehicle.

I believe in my heart that we are doing the right thing. And we are going to be leaders in electrification. We’re going to keep working at it no matter what others say. They’ll either believe it or we will show them. And then they’ll believe. But we’re doing it.

Believe GM’s commitment to EVs or not. That’s your call. But GM’s challenge is different from Tesla’s. Barra is trying to balance the introduction of a new era of EVs with the demands of its current drivers of large internal-combustion vehicles.

Whether GM succeeds or not remains to be seen. Regardless, at this stage, the nation’s largest automaker has no other choice but to try.

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Avatar for Bradley Berman Bradley Berman

Bradley writes about electric cars, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and other tech that’s transforming society. He contributes to The New York Times, SAE International, Via magazine, Popular Mechanics, MIT Technology Review, and others.