GM CEO Mary Barra predicts mass electrification will take decades

Ronan Glon
·3 min read

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General Motors is allocating a substantial amount of money to the development of electric technology, but Mary Barra, the firm's CEO, conceded that battery-powered cars won't fully replace their gasoline-burning counterparts for several decades. She stressed the shift is ongoing, but she hinted it will be slower than many assume.

"We believe the transition will happen over time," affirmed Barra on "Leadership Live with David Rubenstein," a talk show aired by Bloomberg Television. She added that not every car will be electric in 2040. "It will happen in a little bit longer period, but it will happen," she told the host. She was presumably talking about the United States market; the situation is markedly different in Europe and in China, where strict government regulations (and even stricter ones on the horizon) are accelerating the shift towards electric cars.

On the surface, it doesn't look like General Motors has much invested in electrification; the only battery-powered model it sells in America in 2020 is the Chevrolet Bolt (pictured), which undeniably remains a niche vehicle. Sales totaled 16,418 units in 2019, meaning the Corvette beat it by about 1,500 sales. In comparison, Cadillac sold 35,424 examples of the aging last-generation Escalade during the same time period. And yet, the company isn't giving up. It has numerous electric models in the pipeline including a slightly larger version of the aforementioned Bolt, the much-hyped GMC Hummer pickup, and an electric crossover assigned to the Cadillac brand.

These models (and others) will use the Ultium battery technology that General Motors is currently developing. Its engineers are also working on a modular platform capable of underpinning a wide variety of cars. Bringing these innovations to the market is a Herculean task. EVs may not take over for decades, but Barra and her team must believe their 2% market share will increase significantly in the coming years if they're approving these programs.

Autonomous technology is even costlier, more complicated, and more time-consuming to develop. Barra nonetheless expects to see the first General Motors-built driverless vehicles on the road by 2025.

"I definitely think it will happen within the next five years. Our Cruise team is continuing to develop technology so it's safer than a human driver. I think you'll see it clearly within five years," she said on the same talk show.

Her statement is vague but realistic. Alphabet-owned Waymo has already deployed autonomous shuttles, so there's no reason to think General Motors won't be able to operate a comparable program by the middle of the 2020s. It pumped over $1 billion into Cruise to make it happen. However, there's a massive difference between deploying a shuttle in an environment that's relatively easy to handle, like Phoenix's suburbs, and navigating a more complex situation such as a blizzard on an unlit stretch of I-80 about 150 miles east of Evanston, Wyoming.

As for her claim that technology is safer than a human driver, the jury is still out. It's an assertion we hear from a vast majority of the companies who are peddling (or plan to peddle) autonomous technology, which makes sense. It helps them market their products, and in turn allows them to entice clients and investors. Not everyone agrees with it, though. Humans cause 94% of car accidents, but research carried out by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) found autonomous cars will only prevent about a third of those.

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