Column

Starkman: GM’s Mary Barra Has Harmed America’s Transition to Electric Vehicles

January 04, 2024, 9:05 PM

The writer is a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter. He blogs at StarkmanApproved.com

By Eric Starkman

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GM CEO Mary Barra (GM photo)

I’ve developed a sneaking suspicion that when one becomes an auto writer in Detroit, God appears in an apparition and delivers an amendment to the original Ten Commandments.

“Thou shall not write bad stories about Mary.”

No, silly, not that Mary, mother of baby Jesus. I’m talking about GM CEO Mary Barra, who in two weeks will celebrate her tenth year as leader of the once proud automaker. Barra’s tenure has been marked by countless favorable magazine cover stories and fawning profiles, including this doozy published by the Freep where we learned that being the big boss and getting paid $29 million a year is a “lonely job.”

Not many peers to hang out with when you are pulling down that kind of money, particularly at GM, where Barra’s pay last year was 362 times the median GM employee’s paycheck.

Hard as I try, I’ve yet to find even one critical story ever written about Barra’s leadership. For years, Barra was cited as one of America’s best female CEOs, but Fortune editor Alyson Shontell and others now declare Barra “a top CEO regardless of gender.” Fortune ranked GM in the top spot on its “Change the World 2023” list because of Barra’s electrification efforts, along with Tesla.

Never mind that GM sold a mere 75,883 electric vehicles in 2023, most of which were Chevy Bolts, on which GM lost money and has discontinued. By comparison, Tesla sold 1.8 million electric vehicles in 2023, and is more profitable than GM despite aggressive price cutting.

GM’s EVs, without exception, have been fraught with great problems, from the monster Hummer EV, which was sidelined for months after its launch because of water potentially leaking into the battery to the Chevy Blazer EV, which GM has stopped selling because of disastrous reviews of the Mexican-made vehicle’s software. GM’s electric van plant in Canada has been idled for months because of manufacturing delays at the company’s Ohio battery plant, which experienced a lithium leak, and a worker was killed by an automated crane. 

If EVs are the future, then GM possibly doesn’t have much of one. Wall Street analyst Cathie Wood appears to have been spot on when more than two years ago she declared that GM and Ford didn’t have the DNA for this “brave new world” of electric vehicles. While Ford’s EVs have also been fraught with problems, GM’s electric vehicle launches have been more disastrous, particularly since Barra boasted that 2023 would be a breakout year, and that by 2025 she’d be selling more EVs than Tesla. 

Shrinking GM

Let’s give Barra her due. She’s done an excellent job shrinking GM into a profitable manufacturer of gas guzzling trucks and SUVs. GM’s earning per share have grown by 48% every year for the past three years. The company this week reported that its roughly 2.6 million vehicle sales in 2023 were its best since 2019, when GM sold 2.9 million vehicles.

That’s a lot of vehicles, unless you consider Toyota, which sells more the 10 million vehicles per year. Toyota also is considerably more profitable than GM, and Toyota’s stock has outperformed GM’s, yet Barra is paid more than six times Toyota’s CEO.

Go figure.

If one believes President Biden that climate change has achieved “code red” status, then Barra is a big part of the problem.

While Barra was mugging for the television cameras and posing for her magazine photo shoots these past few years, GM’s carbon emissions increased, and the fuel efficiency of its vehicles declined. Indeed, the EPA says between 2017 and 2022, GM’s carbon emissions increased more than any other automaker except Honda.

The EPA blames the shift on Barra's increased focus on more profitable gas guzzling trucks and SUVs, which more than offset emission improvements in all other vehicle types.

Meanwhile, during the 2017-2022 period, Toyota’s carbon emissions decreased more than any other automaker, and the company’s overall fuel economy improved. What makes these results remarkable is that EPA says that Toyota during this period increased its share of the truck and SUV market to 38% from 27%.

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President Biden in Michigan (file photo)

Environmentalists apparently also are God-fearing folks, as must be President Biden, since he’s expressed no public concern about his administration shoveling billions of taxpayer monies GM’s way to build electric vehicles while Barra rakes in mega bucks selling ever thirstier gas guzzling vehicles. Perhaps Biden has expressed some private concerns during one of the eight known visits Barra made to the White House since he was elected.

Those who believe that electric vehicles are critical to combating carbon emissions have taken notice of Barra’s source of profits and are quite outraged. One such person is Jameson Dow, who writes for an EV cultist publication called electrek. Here’s what Dow had to say about Barra’s dismal 2023 EV sales, which he blamed on a lack of urgency.

Polluting Vehicles

“GM’s current complacency on EVs is not only not good enough, but it is actively bad (emphasis his) because a vast majority of the company’s sales are of polluting vehicles,” Dow said. “Every gas vehicle GM sells this year will continue to pollute the air for a decade or more, exacerbating climate change and causing political and social instability.”

Of course, Dow made no mention of the executive ultimately responsible for GM’s pathetic EV sales. He knows the 11th Commandment.

Dow isn’t the only EV enthusiast writer to express alarm about GM’s EV transformation. Another is Kevin Williams who scribes for a trade publication called InsideEVs.


Chevy Blazer EV (GM photo)

Poor Williams. GM gave him one of its  2024 Chevrolet Blazer EVs to test drive, and he planned on driving it from Ohio to North Carolina to gain a real-world experience with the vehicle. Unfortunately, Williams’ electric Blazer had so many glitches he had to ditch it at a dealer in Virginia and make the rest of his trip in a rented Nissan Titan pickup truck with about 61,000 miles on it.

A day after Williams posted his review about his disastrous experiences with the Blazer EV, the automotive information site Edmunds revealed that the Blazer EV it purchased less than eight weeks earlier had been idled at a dealership for two weeks with 23 issues that needed fixing, several of which were serious. The dealership advised Edmunds that an engineer from GM and a technician from a different dealership had been working on the disabled Blazer, but the publication had no idea how long it would take to resolve all the issues.

The scathing reviews Williams and Edmunds posted went viral, and GM has since temporarily halted sales of the Blazer EV because of “software issues.” Fortunately for GM, a follow up story Williams posted has yet to gain traction.

Williams reported that after he posted his critical review of the Blazer EV, he received a collection of emails from owners of GM’s electric Cadillac Lyriq, GMC Hummer EV, and the Blazer EV, all reporting the same issues he experienced.

“Remember, these cars are all on GM’s new Ultium platform, a common EV architecture that eventually will underpin every new GM vehicle in the near future as the American giant aims to go all-electric by 2035,” Williams wrote. “It’s more than a little concerning that there are so many issues with the Ultium-based cars despite only a relative handful being on the roads.”

Williams added: “In the emails, there’s a tone of frustration, as many of the afflicted owners have said that they don’t feel that the service departments truly know what is wrong with their vehicles, or how to fix them.”

Monster Vehicle 

GM appears to be knowingly delivering vehicles that aren’t ready for prime time. Here’s a video of someone’s experiences with the Hummer EV shortly after taking delivery of the monster vehicle that weighs more than 9,000 pounds. 

The mounting bad publicity of serious problems with GM’s EVs have caused great harm to the EV industry, making an already resistant public to EVs even more wary about battery powered vehicles. More than half of American car buyers now say they’re not interested in EVs, up from just 42% who ruled out battery-powered models in 2022, according to Bloomberg, which attributed its information to the automotive research firm Strategic Vision.

Readers of InsideEVs, a valuable publication if you are in the business of selling electric vehicles, apparently are unfamiliar with the 11th Commandment.

“This is sloppy development of the most basic kind, lack of quality control and testing, and most likely also lack of accountability at the senior management level,” posted one reader to Williams’ story about disgruntled owners of GM-made EVs. “Heads should roll about this and bonuses get docked at the c-suite level. And where the heck is the board on this? They should be raking Barra over the coals for this.”

Said another: “Legacy auto makers are under a lot of pressure to get something, anything on the market asap with quality, tech and customer experience getting thrown out the window. They are actually committing a slow form of suicide here by alienating the consumer and tarnishing the entire EV transition. RIP GM.”

Despite batting a thousand in her litany of EV failures, plus the debacle with her Cruise robotaxi business, Barra’s job is secure. She is both chair and CEO of GM and chair of Cruise, which gives her virtually unchecked power. GM’s lead independent director is Patricia Russo, architect of the merger of France-based Alcatel with U.S.-based Lucent, which is widely regarded as one of the worst corporate marriages of all time. I imagine that GM directors learn of the 11th Commandment as a condition to their appointments.

I’ve spoken my piece and counted to three. Time for me to step aside and let Fortune’s Alyson Shontell and the rest of the media begin publishing their 10-year anniversary fawning Barra tributes.

Inspirational

Shontell has quite the fan club at GM, with Lin-Hua Wu, GM’s chief communications officer, calling her “another powerful and amazing woman” in a tweet declaring Barra an “inspirational, visionary, authentic, and strong leader.” The tweet garnered more than 900 endorsements, including from legions of other PR people and, of course, GM employees.

There was a time when GM’s relationship with the media wasn’t such a lovefest.

In 1988, GM cancelled an eight-page advertising insert in Fortune after the magazine published a series of critical stories including, one by former GM board member Ross Perot headlined, “How I Would Turn GM Around.”

In 2005, GM stopped advertising in the Los Angeles Times after the then respectable publication published an article criticizing GM for having “no hybrids of consequence” and calling for the removal of then CEO Rick Wagoner.

Unfortunately for Wagoner, he wasn’t protected under the 11th Commandment.

Reach the writer at eric@starkmanapproved.com. Confidentiality and anonymity are assured.

 



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