Editorial Rant: GM CEO Says Automaker Will Still Lead Electrification, Autonomy
After saying that it will take “years and decades” before General Motors can effectively transition into a company focused primarily on electric vehicles, plenty of outlets ( including ours) accused CEO Marry Barra of lowering expectations. She held another press conference this week to set everyone straight, letting the world know GM will perpetually be at the forefront of the green movement.
The 20 EV models planned for launch by 2023 are still coming. “We have a steady drumbeat of EVs coming out across segments to appeal to a variety of customers,” Barra explained.
She then added that internal combustion vehicles will remain a staple of GM’s lineup for the foreseeable future. Oh, and its first driverless vehicle is coming out in 2025 — instead of 2019, as originally planned. “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 in a recent interview with Dave Rubinstein.
Here’s the thing I can’t stand about corporate messaging — it’s largely devoid of any true meaning. You can become a green automaker just by nature of having said so. Action is irrelevant. Anything you want to be, you can just say you are, then figure the rest out later. But you cannot, under any circumstances, commit yourself to taking a nuanced approach on an issue or admitting that you still have questions or concerns. Instead, change your stance as you try to predict which way the wind will blow.
Like most manufacturers, General Motors recognized that it’ll be some time before EVs become the dominant mode of transportation. But it also echoed the popular mantra that it was evolving into mobility firm (meaningless) while continuing to tout its greener ambitions. For example, in 2016 GM said it would generate or source all electrical power required for operations from renewable sources by 2050.
More of a loose framework than a promise, the plan allowed the company to virtue signal to the world while giving itself plenty of time to dissolve the project as it’s funneled down the ever-expanding memory hole. While this is a trend that seems pervasive in all aspects of society, corporations seem to be the best at it — and they’re going hog wild in regard to new technologies. Barra is only taking heat this month because she’s put herself out in front — though the entirety of the industry plays this game on an incredibly regular basis.
It’s understandable if you only think about the short-term implications. Shareholders never want to hear about a retreat or that something hasn’t gone according to plan. They don’t want delays in future business prospects anymore than environmental activists want to hear that a green initiative has been postponed. Yet this only encourages corporate messaging to shift even further into the language of appeasement and has made sense-making substantially more difficult.
Lacking a clear and consistent message also undercuts any genuine strides made in environmental sustainability, too. Despite GM (and the industry as a whole) looking like it’s not nearly as eager to electrify as it did a year ago, the brand still pledged $20 billion for electric and autonomous vehicle programs through 2025. It also dumped billions into the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant in order to transform the facility into an EV manufacturing mecca. That’s to say nothing of its new battery partnerships or that it was one of the first automakers to deliver an all-electric vehicle that didn’t require a second mortgage.
Unfortunately, years spent reading press releases and discussing matters with public relations reps has made me paranoid of promises and eager to pick at weak points in a brand’s aural defense. No one ever talks about financial setbacks or the job losses the industry will confront as manufacturers transition to electric vehicles with less labor-intensive powertrains. No one talks about the severe problems the industry faces when it comes to producing the raw materials necessary for assembling EVs, or the ethical complications. It’s always going great, you just need to be patient as the goalpost is quietly moved back another 20 yards.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. CEOs can say whatever they want as the companies they head take whatever trajectory they deem necessary. I am absolutely positive Tesla is happy to keep the lion’s share of the EV market and understand mainstream brands need to ride the line between what sells now and what may sell later. Automakers can go full bore into electrification or stick with gas burners forever. It doesn’t matter to me as long as it’s a good product. I just wish they’d level with us. If a company doesn’t think the market will be there to support EVs in 2030, it should probably just say so, rather than make us parse though coded language to get a rough idea what the real plan is.
Consumer advocate tracking industry trends, regulation, and the bitter-sweet nature of modern automotive tech. Research focused and gut driven.
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