General Motors Speeds Ahead

Charles Williams

The American company's green initiatives are helping to reverse many years of producing gas-guzzling cars.

General Motors’ record profit in 2015 was driven in large part by surging American demand for trucks and SUVs. But despite its proud heritage of gas guzzling, the company is working hard to not just meet government mandated fuel-efficiency standards but exceed them. “I think the industry is going to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50,” GM chairman and CEO Mary Barra tells me on the 39th floor of the company’s Detroit headquarters. “How do we lead and be a part of that?”

Barra, 54, has been a GM employee since she was a teenager. But that has not prevented her from viewing the company objectively: She admits that, for many years, GM executives allowed the company to sell what she calls “crappy cars.”

Asked to identify the initiatives that exemplify her vision for the future, Barra talks about eliminating waste in the manufacturing process, a proposition that has both limited landfill output from GM’s plants and netted the company $1 billion via waste-management efforts. She talks about reducing weight and increasing efficiency in every new product the company releases. She talks animatedly about the Chevrolet Bolt, which will be the world’s first affordable long-range electric vehicle when it goes into production late this year, with the ability to go 200 miles on a charge (comparable to Tesla’s target for its upcoming Model 3). And she talks about bridging the divide between luxury and environmental friendliness. “I don’t think they’re ors, I think they’re ands,” she says, mentioning the Cadillac CT6, a plug-in hybrid electric version of which will be available later this year.

Automotive emissions are among the average American’s biggest contributions to the buildup of greenhouse gases. Large changes, multiplied by GM’s huge numbers, can yield enormous results. And one of the largest changes Barra hints at is GM’s interest in driverless cars.

“From an environmental perspective, autonomous vehicles are very important because they reduce congestion over time,” Barra says. In fact, she sees adoption of the driverless car occurring initially in ride-sharing services like Lyft, in which, under her leadership, GM recently invested $500 million. “It’ll be a while—Mary Barra’s opinion—before you walk into a dealership and buy an autonomous car,” she says. “But it won’t be that long before you ride in one to get from point A to point B.”