Automotive > Autonomous Vehicles Blog

What is Mary Barra Selling?

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 25, 2022

Once again keynoting the annual Consumer Electronics Show and once again doing so virtually, General Motors CEO Mary Barra talked over the heads of her audience seeking to appeal directly to investors rather than car buyers. For the second year in a row, there was nothing on offer in GM’s sales pitch that would be appealing to someone currently in the market for a new car - a complaint I expressed last year.

Barra kicked off her talk with a description of the company’s ESG (environment, social, governance) strategy with the now familiar zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion mantra. She forgot to include zero failures – like the Bolt EV ongoing battery fire recall.

Barra then shifted gears into a discussion of GM’s  emphasis on Ultium battery tech and collaborations including a railroad initiative with Wabtec, a back-up power airplane program with Leibherr, and a nautical endeavor with Purewatercraft.

GM’s determination to be a vertically integrated battery supplier clearly means the company is taking on the added distraction of pitching battery tech in addition to pitching cars. Is that a good idea? Is GM a battery tech leader? Shall we ask investors?

With such distractions, it is perhaps no surprise, that the news broke on the morning of Barra’s keynote that the latest vehicle sales estimates showed Toyota surpassing GM’s vehicle sales for the first time in the U.S. It was, in fact, the first time any car company had surpassed GM’s U.S. sales in nearly 100 years.

Like so many companies these days GM leadership appears more interested in the company’s stock price and profits than it is in actually making and selling vehicles successfully. Not surprisingly, GM’s stock hit a new high simultaneous with the news of its declining market share.

It’s tempting to view this as a sign of the times. Fraudsters like Nikola Motors and Theranos appear to routinely bamboozle otherwise “savvy” investors and credulous journalists in the interest of lining the pockets of founders and managers with hundreds of millions of dollars.

Special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) IPO with barely a hint of revenue and the thinnest tissue of a business plan. It is hardly a coincidence that GM was briefly wrapped around the axle of Nikola’s absurd and fraudulent electric vehicle performance and production claims before taking a step back.

Part of the problem is that there appear to be no consequences. True, Theranos’ founder has faced the judicial music, and Nikola is trying to recover some of its founder’s ill-gotten bounty in the wake of paying a $125M settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But Nikola’s SPAC partner VectoIQ, led as it was by multiple former GM executives, walked away scot-free.

This is the space that GM’s Mary Barra is most comfortable occupying. Here, executives make broad claims about new products and technologies that are “coming soon” and will “disrupt” their industries.

Last year, GM was talking about BrightDrop delivery vans, flying cars, Ultium batteries, autonomous vehicles, and electrified Cadillacs, pickup trucks, and Hummers. We’re still waiting for these things to materialize (albeit some BrightDrop vans have evidently been delivered to FedEx and a Hummer EV or two has been shipped).

Barra is still claiming industry leadership for GM’s “chemistry-agnostic” Ultium battery architecture – a claim the company has been making for at least two years without delivering any vehicles to consumers. Is it any wonder that GM has slipped from its top market share perch in the U.S.?

Barra talks a good game regarding GM EV leadership with the pending arrival of EV Hummers, Blazers, Equinoxes, Silverados, Bolts (when production restarts), Sierras, Lyriqs, and Celestiqs. “No other auto maker matches the depth and the range of GM’s electric vehicle portfolio,” she says. On paper! Certainly not on the road.

The 140,000+ owners of Chevrolet Bolts were likely disappointed at the lack of a mea culpa from Barra regarding the battery fires and still unfolding recalls and buybacks – to say nothing of the shutdown of the production line. Is GM really going to continue to make and sell the Bolt in spite of the recall and the fact that it is using an outdated battery architecture?

And what about Cruise Automation? Billions of dollars burned in the pursuit of autonomous driving with nothing to show but a video of company employees being shuttled on nearly empty roads at night in San Francisco. The video shared as part of the CES keynote may as well have been shot on a test track or on a movie set.

Missing from the autonomous story, after years of work by thousands of engineers, is a vision for driverless operation in truly challenging real world conditions – urban or otherwise – or a plan for scaling the system to cities around the world. Or maybe just a day-time demo of driverless operation.

Instead, Barra posits a future when consumers will shell out enormous sums for autonomous Cadillacs – also shown during the keynote. Really, Mary? Autonomous Cadillacs?

This was another missed opportunity – of course. A more meaningful “story” would have been autonomous commercial vehicles – like GM’s new BrightDrop EVs. That’s clearly not in the cards.

Mary Barra has removed GM from the front rank of car makers – certainly no longer in the top five. She has whittled it down to a handful of global markets where sales continue to whither – with the possible exception of the Wuling Mini EV in China. Now, GM is even struggling to maintain its leadership in its home market. 

(A novel note to Barra’s presentation might have been an introduction of the Wuling Mini. Though not suitable to meet U.S. vehicle regulatory requirements it is actually a global EV best seller.)

At a time when Toyota is eating GM’s lunch in the U.S. and Ford is embarrassing the General with the success of the Mustang Mach-E and Lightning F-150, GM could have used a more focused message. Barra might have scaled down the fluffy and puffy sales pitch with a focused launch of the Silverado EV – especially given that its internal combustion forebear was the best-selling vehicle in eight U.S. states in 2021, according to Edmunds.

If Barra didn’t want to talk about the recent and embarrassing departure of Cruise Automation’s CEO, Dan Ammann, (considered a candidate for Barra’s own job) or touch on the Bolt EV battery fire problems, she could have highlighted the Silverado – a bona fide GM best seller and likely linchpin to the company’s commercial vehicle and EV strategy.

Mary Barra didn’t do that. She blew keynote smoke rings for investors. In the end, even investors want to see real results. Let’s hope GM decides to get real real soon.

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