For more than a year, from her wood-paneled home office, Mary Barra has been leading General Motors on a quest that, if successful, will be one of the most consequential reinventions in corporate history. GM is playing serious catchup in the electric-vehicle game, and success is far from certain for the legacy carmaker that sold fewer than 21,000 EVs in the U.S. last year. Market leader Tesla accounted for an astonishing 79% of all U.S. EV registrations in 2020, according to Automotive News. (GM’s Bolt was the only non-Tesla model in the top five slots.) GM is also facing stepped-up competition from Volkswagen, which is making its own feverish push into EVs. Barra claims that GM has all the pieces in place to meet its little-noted goal to seize “EV market leadership in North America” by 2025, but even she acknowledges that the company needs to “put a few more points on the board.” To help jump-start EV sales, which currently account for about 2 % of the U.S. market for cars, President Biden’s recently unveiled infrastructure plan includes $174 billion targeted specifically at EVs. Barra, the daughter of a GM auto-worker who herself started at GM inspecting fenders, is a rare CEO who has spent her entire career with one company. She recently joined TIME for several conversations on GM’s plan to invest $27 billion in EVs and introduce 30 new models by 2025—and its “aspiration” to quit making cars with tailpipes by 2035.
Let’s get the Tesla–Elon Musk questions out of the way. As a car person and engineer, how do you rate Tesla and the overall driving experience?
I’ve driven a lot of vehicles, and I don’t underestimate any competitor. I think that at General Motors, one of our core principles and foundational elements is safety. And that’s what we focus on. We have a different point of view.
What specifically are you referencing?
Self-driving autopilot vs. General Motors Super Cruise. I think we’ve approached it in a different fashion. So we have a different strategy.
Can you expand on that? In terms of how much control the driver gives up to the car?
There’s really no self-driving vehicles out on the road right now other than in pilots like we have with Cruise. [Cruise is GM’s majority-owned self-driving-car startup.] They’re driver-assist systems. [When] we talk about GM’s Super Cruise, we keep it hands-on. We make sure you’re paying attention to the road and you’re engaged in the driving process because you’re still responsible. [Tesla is under investigation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for crashes involving its self-driving mode. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.]
What do you think of Elon Musk as a CEO?
I really don’t have any comment on that.
Have you ever spoken with him?
Once. It was in a broader group, so it wasn’t a one-on-one dialogue.
Last question on this topic: Tesla’s market cap is around $700 billion. Yours, while climbing, is still under $100 billion: $85 billion. I know you say that shows the size of the opportunity, but as an engineer, what do you think about the efficiency of the stock market, and then on some level, does that disparity just stick in your craw as a competitive person?
[Laughs.] One of the pieces I think that sometimes investors miss is that virtually all the assets necessary to achieve our vision we already have and have demonstrated. Sometimes we will forget we actually sell more vehicles in this country than anyone else. We have strong brands. We have industry-leading loyalty. And we have an incredibly capable manufacturing team. We have to tell our story better and put a few more points on the board.
The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? largely concluded that GM smothered its very promising EV1 model in the early 2000s. Do you ever have moments where you think, ‘Boy, I wish we had done that differently’?
It’s hard for me to go back and second-guess decisions that were made 20 years ago when I wasn’t in the room. I’m sure somebody will do that to me 20 years from now. What people don’t understand is that ever since that time, we have been working on electric vehicles and the technology. We’ve always been working on it.
GM is very aligned with the current Administration, which must be refreshing for you after being singled out on Twitter by the last President. [The 45th President tweeted: “It’s always a mess with Mary B” in negotiations about ventilator production.] But there’s also a view that you capitulated to Trump’s anti-environmental policies by joining the past Administration’s lawsuit against the California emissions standards and then dropping it after the election. Do you have any regrets about your initial decision on that?
No. It’s much more complicated. GM has always been very clear about believing in an all-electric future with the investments we’re making. There is not a meeting I had with the previous Administration where I didn’t talk about the importance of EVs. But we also think that to be efficient, we need one national standard, because we thought that would accelerate implementation. And frankly, that—that was always our goal. That was our stated mission. A lot of other people interpreted it much differently. It was hard to get the correct—to help people truly understand what our path was.
You have 155,000 employees. How many of them will be performing different jobs to produce the 30 new EV launches that you’re working on by 2025? Have you had to have hard conversations with people who have spent their careers building internal combustion engines?
We already build electric vehicles. So we have training programs for people to understand the differences between an EV and an internal combustion engine. And we have an incredibly capable and skilled workforce. So, will work change? Yes, but work changes every day. A lot of the skills can be very transferable. A great software engineer, if they’re working on calibrating an internal combustion engine or doing software for an electric vehicle, it’s very transferable skills. The same is true for the men and women of our manufacturing team. We have regular training programs to make sure they know the new technology coming into the vehicle, whether it’s the propulsion system moving to electric or all of the connectivity we have. So it’s not so much about hard conversations, it’s just helping people understand where we’re going and the new skills that they need to learn, and I find most people are very excited about that.
Some people are having trouble getting their heads around GM reintroducing the Hummer as an EV; it just doesn’t scream environmentally friendly.
It’s definitely a zero-emissions vehicle. It’s all electric. It’s a super-truck. And we’re just very excited to get it out to show that capability. We have very strong market share and loyalty in our truck franchise. We thought it was very important to show the capability. But we do think it’s causing people to look differently.
How do you reconcile the concern for the environment that the EV push shows with your current reliance on selling these enormous vehicles like Silverados, Sierras and Escalades?
Whenever we put out new vehicles, we’re always looking to make them more fuel-efficient. If we want to move to electric vehicles, we have to do it in a way that everyone’s included. We’re trying to solve all the potential issues and delight our customers so they move to electric vehicles because that’s what they want to drive.
Why do Americans love ginormous vehicles so much?
One thing that we’ve seen from customer research—and this isn’t just about trucks, but it’s about SUVs as well—is, generally, once somebody moves from the vantage point of a sedan to sitting up higher in the command [seat]—you know, the view of the road that they have—they don’t want to go back.
Regarding pickup trucks, how many people are actually using them professionally, to pick stuff up, vs. as a lifestyle choice?
There’s a significant portion of people who buy full-size trucks that it’s part of their livelihood. A plumber, a contractor—so definitely a truck is part of their business and part of their day. What we saw as we rolled out this most recent generation of full-size trucks over the last couple of years, is people were moving from luxury sedans to full-size trucks.
Your dad worked in the industry for many years. Lessons learned?
Both my parents were born and raised during the Depression. Neither of them had the opportunity to go to college, but they believed in the American Dream and so hard work was how I was raised. You worked before you played. And there’s a love of vehicles. Every now and then, he’d get a chance to bring a vehicle home, and the whole neighborhood would come over and my brother and I would look at every inch of it.
You first started at GM as an 18-year-old as a quality inspector, measuring the gaps between the fender and door. Were you good at your job?
I was in engineering school, so measuring accurately was not a big reach.
When you were head of HR, you famously cut GM’s dress code from more than 10 pages to two words.
Just dress appropriately. These are people we’re trusting to do really important work on the behalf of the company, and yet we’re not going to trust they use good judgment to decide what to wear to work?
What is your favorite song that mentions a GM product in it?
“Little Red Corvette” by Prince. There’s so many songs: talking about the Chevy truck, they’re talking about the Corvette, they’re talking about their pink Cadillac. For most people, the vehicle that they purchase is either the most expensive or the second most expensive thing they buy in their lives. When I see our vehicles in songs, it’s because we’re part of their life. It’s super meaningful to me.