General Motors made a splash last year when it announced a bold plan to ramp up sales of electric vehicles and said it would stop making gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.
But more than a year later, some other automakers appear better positioned to lead the industry’s transition to EVs. Tesla had global sales of more than 310,000 electric cars in the first quarter of this year, while GM is far behind, unless it counts EVs made by its Chinese joint ventures. It sold fewer than 500 EVs in the United States in the quarter. Ford has just started production of an electric F-150 pickup and has taken customer reservations for more than 200,000 of them.
Yet GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, is unconcerned. In her view, the GM strategy should enable the company to make more affordable EVs than most competitors, and eventually to win over many of the tens of millions of car buyers who are not yet shopping for electric vehicles.
Last year EVs accounted for about 3% of the 15 million cars and trucks sold in the United States. As that percentage grows, GM expects this cost advantage to allow it to overtake most of its rivals within a few years and to challenge Tesla for the lead in EV sales before the end of the decade.
“That’s the long game we are playing,” Barra said in an interview at GM’s sprawling technical center in Warren, Michigan, north of Detroit. “And I’m here to win.”
The heart of the strategy is a battery pack design that GM has engineered over the last five years. Its packs, marketed under the name Ultium, are made up of Lego-like battery modules that can be combined in different sizes and used in any GM vehicle, from a compact car to a full-size pickup. Since the modules all use the same parts, GM believes it will reap great economies of scale that will drive down its costs and give it an advantage over other automakers.
While working on its Ultium design, GM also started building four factories with a partner, LG Electric, to churn out battery packs in mass quantities and at lower costs. It has also started retooling assembly plants to make vehicles with Ultium packs.
Barra noted that most EVs sold in the United States last year were luxury models purchased by people who owned at least two vehicles. GM’s current offerings are of that type. They include an electric GMC Hummer pickup that sells for about $110,000 and a luxury SUV, the Cadillac Lyriq.
“If you want EVs to get to 100% or even 50% of the market, there have to be affordable EVs,” she said. “You’ve got to provide entry models in that space.”
Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at Guidehouse Insights, said GM’s strategy should “in theory” yield cost advantages over time but said it was unclear how significant they would be and how long GM would have an edge.
“Right now seems to be the moment we customers are taking an interest in electric trucks,” he said. “By the time the Silverado is out in volume, Ford will probably have sold more than 100,000 Lightnings.”
GM has a lot of ground to make up. Tesla has been assembling its own battery packs for years and has achieved significant economies of scale. Ford took a quicker route to get its electric truck, the F-150 Lightning, into production. It buys the truck’s battery packs from a supplier, SKI, and puts them into a modified version of the gasoline-powered F-150. By moving quickly, Ford essentially has the electric pickup market to itself for now.
Ford is also working on its own modular battery design, dedicated EVs (that is, not reengineered internal-combustion vehicles) and battery plants, and is lagging behind GM on that front. Ford has made plans to build two battery plants in Kentucky and one in Tennessee, but it will not start production for about two years. And before it can start making EVs with those batteries, it will have to retool assembly plants to produce them.
“It gets expensive in terms of capital every time you retool plants,” said GM’s president, Mark Reuss.
The first of four battery plants that GM and LG are building together, in Lordstown, Ohio, is supposed to start producing Ultium packs later this year. Packs made there will be used in three Chevrolet EVs coming out next year that GM is counting on to become brisk sellers: a Silverado pickup, and the Equinox and Blazer SUVs.
GM’s three other battery plants are supposed to start production in 2023, 2024 and 2025. Those plants will help equip more than a dozen EVs that the company plans to add to the U.S. market. Its goal is to produce more than 1 million EVs in North America annually by 2026.
The daughter of a GM die-maker, Barra, 60, grew up in Royal Oak, Michigan, and started working at a GM plant as an intern at 18 while studying electrical engineering at the company’s technical college, now called Kettering University. Through a GM fellowship, she earned a master’s in business administration at Stanford. Since entering the management ranks, she has held top posts in global manufacturing, human resources, product development and supply chain management.
In January 2014, she succeeded Daniel Akerson as CEO and became the first woman to head a major auto company. Barra guided GM through a scandal stemming from an ignition switch flaw linked to crashes that resulted in more than 100 deaths. She then made a series of decisions that showed that the General Motors that had recently emerged from bankruptcy was not the conservative, lumbering giant that consumers and investors had known for a century.
In a move that would once have been unthinkable, she decided to pull out of the European market, a region of slow growth and low margins where GM had been posting losses for two decades. GM sold its European operations to France’s Peugeot S.A., now part of Stellantis. Included in the sale was the Opel division, which had been owned by GM since 1929.
Shedding money-losing businesses that had been tolerated for years “helped change the whole mindset,” she said. “The whole company kind of went, ‘Well, this is a new day.’”
GM, which had long taken pride in developing its own technology, also acquired an automated vehicle startup, Cruise Automation. In another precedent-breaking move, GM has brought in outside investors, including Honda and T. Rowe Price, to share the costs and risks of spending billions of dollars on self-driving vehicles.
Along the way, Barra formed a close partnership with Reuss, a contemporary who had been a candidate for the top job in 2014. He, too, has spent his career at GM and had followed his own father, Lloyd Reuss, a former president of the company.
While Barra was heading product development and Reuss was in charge of North America, they resolved to break away from the company’s reputation of making subpar cars. “We made a pact,” Barra recalled. “We said we are not going to do crappy vehicles. If we launch a vehicle, we want it to win.”
In the years Barra has been CEO, she and Reuss have grown into a tandem. He heads product development and added the title of president in 2019. Last fall, when GM gathered investors and analysts to lay out a vision of doubling revenue to around $280 billion a year, the daylong conference was jointly led by Barra and Reuss.
Their thinking about quality came into play when GM started mapping out its long-term EV strategy. In late 2016, the Chevrolet Bolt hit the market. A small car with limited interior space and a battery range of 238 miles, well short of the range most Teslas offered at the time, it achieved only modest sales.
Because of a defect in battery packs made by LG, all 141,000 Bolts sold in the United States from 2017 to 2021 were recalled to have their packs replaced. The recall forced GM to stop making Bolts last fall. Production restarted last month.
To ensure that a second wave of EVs could generate profits and reach volume sales, Barra’s executive team concluded that the company could not make compromises as it did with the Bolt. Their aim was for the company to build EVs from the ground up, find cost reductions and manufacture the battery packs itself. GM has estimated that the Ultium design will cut the cost of battery packs by 30%.
With GM’s EV strategy well underway, Barra is confident that the company has chosen the right path, and her biggest concern is executing it as quickly as possible. “I drive the organization crazy because I’m constantly challenging the organization on how can we go faster,” she said. “Every time I go to design and see a vehicle they’re working on, I’m like, ‘How fast can we get that out?’”
And if her team needs a reminder of the urgency of the matter, the recent fanfare generated by Ford as the F-150 Lightning went into production does the job nicely.
“Do I wish the electric Silverado launch was coming sooner?” Barra said. “Sure.”