Scaling EVs means skipping “half steps” with hybrids, GM’s Mary Barra says

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Jun 8, 2023
Heard on:
CEO Mary Barra says GM is focused on the problem of too few charging stations for EVs. "We know it'll be a gating factor if it's not sufficient," she says. Above, she speaks with host Kai Ryssdal at GM's Global Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Nancy Farghalli/Marketplace

Scaling EVs means skipping “half steps” with hybrids, GM’s Mary Barra says

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Jun 8, 2023
Heard on:
CEO Mary Barra says GM is focused on the problem of too few charging stations for EVs. "We know it'll be a gating factor if it's not sufficient," she says. Above, she speaks with host Kai Ryssdal at GM's Global Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Nancy Farghalli/Marketplace

General Motors, the largest U.S. automaker by sales, also wants to be the country’s leading electric vehicle company. The company pledged to make all of its vehicles diesel- and gasoline-free by 2035, and plans to produce 1 million EVs by 2025. But according to GM CEO Mary Barra, ramping up EV production means jumping straight to the “end game.” “We weren’t going to do a half step,” Barra said. “We weren’t going to go to a lot of hybrids.”

Instead, the automaker is investing in a new vehicle platform, battery production and charging infrastructure. On Thursday, the company announced a collaboration with Tesla that will integrate Tesla’s North American Charging Standard into GM electric vehicles, giving them access to 12,000 Tesla Superchargers.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Barra at GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, a 710-acre campus that employs around 25,000 people and is the heart of GM’s EV development efforts. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Mary Barra: Thanks so much for making the trip to Warren.

Ryssdal: And it was a trip. Warren’s an interesting place. We drove in this morning, and I was thinking about how I was going to start our chat. And I was looking at the cars as I came in. Lots of, you know, almost all GMs, not all of them, but almost. It occurred to me though, there was only one EV in the whole parking lot. And it’s the one parked out front, it’s the new Cadillac Lyriq. And I guess my question is, how do you get America into driving EVs, when you don’t, it looks like, have a lot of GM workers driving EVs yet?

Barra: Well, I think it’s a great question. And it’s coming. This is kind of a breakthrough year for General Motors. You know, by the end of this year, we’ll have nine EVs available, you know, with the Bolt EV and EUV, all the way to the Silverado EV that will launch in, you know, short order. We’ll have a very affordable Chevrolet Equinox EV, a Blazer EV. And then also, when we look at the Lyriq, that’s just ramping up. And so for General Motors, you know, we made the decision to do a dedicated platform, which we call Ultium. And so, the Bolt has our second-generation technology, but Ultium is our third generation. And this is the year we really ramp those up. So I know there’s a lot of our employees who want, in fact, I just came from a town hall where they were asking how do I get more experience to understand, you know, how an EV changes my life. And that’s, that’s the journey that we’re on. So if you came here in a year, it would be much different. 

Ryssdal: So maybe we will, but look, you’re discontinuing the Bolt. And you’ve got all these cars planned. How many are coming out the door every year, right? I guess the question is, are enough coming out the door?

Barra: I wish I had more. So to your point, I absolutely wish I had more. You know, we’ll make about 50,000 for North America by the end of this month.

Ryssdal: Which is a single-digit percentage of your production.

Barra: Exactly, but we will then virtually double that in the second half of the year. And we are still on track by middle of next year to have made 400,000 EVs from ‘22 to ‘23 and the first half of ‘24. But then it just ramps because we’ve said, and we’ve got the plans in place, the capital has been deployed, and we think we have winning vehicles to reach a million EVs in 2025.

Ryssdal: That’s a big swing. 

Barra: Huge swing. And this is the year.

Ryssdal: OK. Were you late? Did you miss the boat?

Barra: You know, what I would say is we made a decision. We were actually early when you think about the Bolt EV, a truly affordable EV. And when we started to work on what was going to come after the Bolt EV and EUV, that’s when we realized really to do it efficiently and to really be able to scale, we needed a dedicated platform. And so that’s why we created Ultium. We also decided we weren’t going to do a half step. We weren’t going to go to a lot of hybrids. Because really, in a hybrid, your vehicle has two propulsion platforms, you’ve got the internal combustion engine and the battery. And we made the decision, we were going to go to the end game. And then making our own batteries. And so we have a plant that’s now ramping up very well in Ohio, we have another one in Spring Hill, Tennessee, that will ramp up by the end of the year. Another one coming online next year in Michigan. So I think the decision we made to do a dedicated platform and to make our own battery cells, that ramp up has taken a little while.

Ryssdal: I’m going to talk platform in a minute, right? Because that’s important for what you’re trying to do. I do want to talk about affordability though. You did a conference the other day in which you said it’s not possible, really, right now with the technology we have, to make a $30,000-$40,000-ish EV and make money on it. So how you gonna make money? Because that’s your job. 

Barra: Yes, well, part of it is battery breakthroughs. And as we look at our platform, we have committed, with all the ramp up and investment we’re doing in 2025 will be to single mid-digit levels of profitability. And we believe with the work that we’re doing on battery technology, and then the fact that we’re going to leverage and scale our Ultium platform as well as making batteries internally, that will give us a lot of advantage to get to profitability at the lower levels. But that’s why at this current juncture, IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] is very important.

Ryssdal: We’ll get to the IRA as well, right, and the infrastructure part of this because that’s huge, because you’re depending on a whole lot of other things happening, as are all EV makers. Super quickly on the Ultium platform: It is basically a combination of drive train and battery technology, right, and that’s what you’re betting the ranch on here, right?

Barra: Yeah, it is. And what’s important about the Ultium is it’s scalable because, well, so when we start with a clean sheet of paper and say, what do we want the next Chevrolet Equinox to be, we decide by how many battery cells and modules we put into the vehicle, what the power and performance and range is going to be of that vehicle. And then we can scale it. But what’s the beauty of the platform is it’s chemistry agnostic. So we can use pouch, we can use prismatic, we can use cylindrical cells, we also have a wireless battery control system that allows it to be much faster to get that vehicle up and running. So we really dedicated the work on Ultium to make it not for today’s technology, because the technology is and has to change, but to make it scalable, so we don’t have to redo the capital as we go forward.

Ryssdal: I don’t want to get too sideways here. But since you’re bringing out all the technical terms about battery science, which is a huge part of what EV makers are trying to do, you’re an electrical engineer by training. 

Barra: Yes. 

Ryssdal: Does that help you now in this juncture, as you try to transform this company?

Barra: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, and I haven’t done, I’ll say, core engineering in a while in my career. But, you know, it always goes back to first principles. And so I think, being able to lead the company and really understand, you know, what we’re doing from how we design, and I actually had the privilege of leading product development in my career, to really understand how that works. I’ve had the opportunity to run an assembly plant in my career as well. And having that core knowledge of what it takes to build a vehicle safely, with high quality and very efficiently is something that I’ve grown up in the environment and know how to drive the organization to accomplish.

Ryssdal: So you have used in the eight-ish or so minutes we’ve been talking, you’ve used the phrase “ramp” to emphasize, you’ve done the hand going up a ramp signal here. Seems like you’re counting on ramping as the savior here, right, you need to scale.

Barra: Well definitely, and that’s always been our plan. And, again, we know how to do that. But when I look at the strong response that we have to the Lyriq, which I just took delivery of mine the other day and just talked to actually an employee who was driving a Lyriq and talked about how, you know, it’s just a fabulous vehicle. The Silver —

Ryssdal: It’s funny that you had to wait, but somebody working for you got theirs first, I’m just saying.

Barra: Well, but that’s by design too. Because, you know, when we’re launching a new vehicle, I want those vehicles in the hands of engineers, who can ensure that we’ve designed and met all our goals. And then frankly, for the first customers, the hand raisers, I want them to get their vehicle too. So I’ve been driving a Bolt EUV for several months before that. Absolutely love it.

Ryssdal: So why are you stopping making it?

Barra: Because it’s our second-generation technology. The difference between our second generation and third generation, which is Ultium, is a 40% reduction in battery costs. And we’re leveraging the names of our vehicles that are well understood and known in industry. People, you know, who drive an Equinox today will understand what an Equinox EV, what that delivers to them. But, you know, Bolt is something that has built up a lot of loyalty and equity. So I can’t say more because I don’t discuss future product programs. But, you know, it was primarily a move from second generation to third generation. But that’s [an] important vehicle in our portfolio.

Ryssdal: Nudge nudge, wink wink, I guess. Can we talk IRA and infrastructure and this idea: You and all other EV makers are dependent on an infrastructure that develops to support those cars, specifically charging stations across the country, and as a brand-new EV owner myself — sadly, for you, not a GM car — it’s a little challenging out there, getting increasingly challenging. You can pick up the phone and call the president of the United States. Right? You are one of those people. You are, I mean, come on. Right. But I guess if you call him and said, “Mr. President, we need more help,” how confident are you that the government would be responsive to your needs? Because —

Barra: I think that the government and the administration is very committed to an all EV future. And I think it’s a little too soon to ask for more help. Because if you think about what was in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, there was money specifically designated for charging infrastructure. And the states have written proposals, and that money, I believe, is starting to flow. So, you know, I talk about ramp a lot. I think we’re gonna see that happen now as that money starts to be deployed to build out the charging infrastructure. I think that’s one important component. But I think you’ve also heard other people are starting to understand the opportunity. When you hear a Walmart or a 7/11, they’re going to invest in charging stations. And you think about it, if you go grocery shopping, I don’t know about you, but when I’m in the grocery store, it seems like I never get out of there in less than, you know, 40, 45 minutes. That becomes a perfect location to charge.

Ryssdal: Yes, it absolutely is. And I’m glad you raised that, because I go to my local Piggly Wiggly, and there are four 150 kilowatt-hour charging stations, and they’re always full. And it takes 20, 25 minutes to get yourself from 15-ish percent to 80% of battery. And it’s a real disincentive for public charging stations, right? I mean, people have EVs. I phrased that the wrong way. People who have EVs say, “Yes, I can charge in these public stations.” But really, the fact is, they’re always full.

Barra: But again, we’re in the early, we’re in the first turn of the race. 

Ryssdal: Yeah, but I’ve got a car now. And all these EV owners out there that you’re looking at as potential future customers for a second or third car, they have EVs now.

Barra: Well, and again, that’s why we’re investing. General Motors has committed three-quarters of a billion dollars to accelerate. And we’re trying to pick up the spaces where, you know, there’s a lot of startups working on charging infrastructure. They’re going to go to dense urban environments, because that’s where they’re going to get the payback on their investment. Then you look at Suburban, we’re working with their dealers, not necessarily to put chargers at our dealers, although they are, because they’re going to have EVs they need to charge on their fleet. But they know in the local communities where are the key places, along with using OnStar data, to where people move, that’s another location. 

Ryssdal: Here’s a better non-me-centric way to ask this question: Do you worry that the challenges of charging infrastructure will slow you down as you try to get people to buy EVs? Because people do their research, and they see that it’s a problem. Right?

Barra: Right. So I would say, when we’ve surveyed consumers, if they can charge at home, and I think people are going to start to see a stronger demand, which is going to incentivize, if they want to attract people to live in the, especially if it’s apartments or condos, I think you’re going to see a demand to add more charging capability there. But definitely, we know — and that’s why we’re focused on charging as well as a great EV portfolio — we know it’ll be a gating factor if it’s not sufficient.

Ryssdal: What keeps you up at night? Oh, well, I guess maybe a better question is how many things —  you’re laughing at me, I mean, you can’t see this on the radio, but you’re laughing. How many things keep you up at night? And what’s the top, like, two?

Barra: For me, it’s my job to be concerned about a number of things. I would say right now what we’re really focused [on], what is within our control, and it’s making sure we have flawless execution of all the launches we’re doing this year. I would say, from a second, you know, some of it, which is less or not totally within our control is charging infrastructure. We’re not compromising on range, if it’s a truck, we’re not compromising on towing. So meeting the customer where they are with a vehicle that I, frankly, think is better and the experience is better. That’s exciting. But again, they have to know that they’re going to be able to charge.

Ryssdal: Sorry, you mentioned trucks, and I did want to bring that up because you have said in the beginning, right, with EVs, you want to go high end and you want to go larger because that’s what American customers want, and that’s where profitability is for you. I guess the question is, as we try to move toward a more sustainable future of which electric vehicles are a key component, does it do us any good to have trucks that have huge battery requirements and thus huge matériel requirements and longer charging times, when what we really need are a bunch of smaller cars that charge quickly so people can zip around on their 15-20 mile commute as opposed to going 300 miles down the highway?

Barra: Well, remember, yes, we are doing trucks like the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, both EVs that are coming out in the not too distant future, as well as building on the Hummer. General Motors is a full-portfolio company. We’re going to have a full portfolio. But you know, when you look at trucks, a lot of people use trucks for their livelihood. And so the other thing is, I think one of the great things about America is we don’t dictate what you buy, you get to choose what you want to buy. And frankly, people love their trucks. And on our battery work, we’re one of the few OEMs [original equipment manufacturer] that actually does battery R&D. In this building, we’re doing R&D on battery chemistry. We have a battery lab that is just over there —

Ryssdal: Looking out the window, around the corner.

Barra: — and then a manufacturing processing development lab. So we’re doing work to not only take the cost of chemistry down, but need less of, you know, battery raw materials that are very expensive and hard to get

Ryssdal: You’ve been at this company 40-ish years. You’ve been running it for almost 10 now. Are you going to see it through this EV transition?

Barra: Well, I serve at the pleasure of the board.

Ryssdal: Yes, but what’s the real answer? 

Barra: Well, but the real answer is this is the most exciting time in my career. When you look at how we can change the way people move, and make it more efficient and make it better for the planet, and then I do believe we can make it more efficient from a time perspective. As an engineer, it’s just the most exciting time I’ve had in my career.

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