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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Driving Toward the Automobile’s Electric, Autonomous Future

It’s a heady time to be a car executive. Lawmakers worldwide are pushing the auto industry to electrify, and fast. US companies are under pressure to do that without giving a boost to rival nations, primarily China. Reengineering decades of internal combustion-centric technology, business models, and supply chains should be easy, right?

Meanwhile, another revolutionary technology is also approaching: self-driving vehicles. Automakers and tech companies have poured hundreds of billions into the quest for robot cars. That spending has yet to bear commercial fruit, but it is expected to reshape everything from the business of cars to city streets and the labor market.

Mark Reuss, the president of General Motors, has worked at the Detroit automaker for decades and feels the ground shifting beneath his feet. The company is ramping up production of new electric models like the Cadillac Lyriq and Chevrolet Silverado EV, manufacturing its own battery packs in a joint venture with LG, and trying to push forward self-driving subsidiary Cruise, whose operations in San Francisco have been disrupted by a serious crash and incidents of cars freezing in the road. In an interview that has been edited for length and clarity, Reuss tells WIRED he’s optimistic about the reinvention of the automobile and the carmaker’s future.

WIRED: I wanted to begin by asking you about the Inflation Reduction Act, which ties new tax credits for electric vehicles to tough requirements to make battery components in the US. How has that changed your thinking about the supply chain?

Mark Reuss: That started, unfortunately, with the pandemic, and looking at our supply chains on semiconductors. The whole industry goes to Taiwan, or that area of the world, to get them. And that’s not healthy. We really went at the EV supply lines so that we weren’t leveraging things around the world, but rather doing it in our country. It also led to a lot of decisions on vertically integrating our battery platforms and cell chemistries. That was really good. We’re using 70 percent less cobalt in the chemistries we’re launching with now, relative to the Chevrolet Bolt.

How bad is the chip shortage now? I’m hearing from people who are flipping their new EVs for more than they paid because vehicles are in short supply. When do you expect things to return to normal?

I don’t know what the new normal is going to be exactly. We’re in pretty good shape through the end of the year. We had about 95,000 vehicles on the ground waiting for supply that we’re now clearing. We’re addressing pricing the best we can. I see everything on the internet, too, you know, and it makes me sad.If we look at the data, across our dealer network and all our vehicles, we’re a little bit over our suggested retail price. The really good dealers aren’t raising prices because it destroys their brand, it destroys our brand. We’re also deploying something called our digital retail platform, where customers will be able to buy a vehicle any way they want, whether it’s online, in a dealership, or in the manufacturing pipeline.

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Speaking of dealerships, how do they have to change as they sell more EVs?

It starts with the portfolio. We have in the past done maybe one electric vehicle, and then another one, but we didn’t have the critical mass of models needed at a dealership. There’s also training: What is an EV? How is it different? What customer experience does it offer? How do you get it serviced? What do you need in your garage? We’re also deploying 40,000 charging stations across the municipalities around our dealers. If you go see an EV, you want to drive one—a lot of people haven’t yet—and not having a charger on site doesn’t work.

There are ambitious goals for EV adoptions in the US: President Joe Biden has said he wants half of vehicle sales by 2030 to be zero-emission. California says it will ban sales of gas-powered cars by 2035. Is GM going to be able to hit those targets?

We feel pretty good about it. Most of the other makers’ cell plants are coming online in 2025. We’re coming online today. We’ll have the battery cell production, we’ll have the segments and price points that people want. We generally do what we say we’re going to do, and we don’t make claims on things that we’re not actively doing. We’ve got a pretty good track record on that.

Production of the Chevy Bolt launch didn’t all go to plan, though. GM had to recall and replace all 141,000 battery packs. What did you learn from that?

Whenever we have an issue, we have teams called Red X teams, and I’m really proud of the work that they did on this one. We are really happy about the work we’re putting in on handling and manufacturing battery cells, and a lot of that comes off of what we did in the Bolt recall because we learned about the whole supply chain there.

GM is also working toward another big transition—into an age of autonomous vehicles. You said late last year you were trying to align GM more tightly with its subsidiary Cruise, which is developing and testing automated driving.

We’re solving one of the greatest engineering problems in the world with autonomous driving. Our approach has always been to go to the hardest place, which is what we’re doing in San Francisco. I was out there for a Cruise board meeting two weeks ago, and we’re becoming more aligned as we look at the opportunities that we’re going to have with AVs and PAVs—personal autonomous vehicles. We’ve got 34 million miles on Cruise. And we monitor what Super Cruise [GM’s hands-free driving feature] does every day. We’re actually building the Origin [GM’s driverless taxi], alongside the Hummer and the Silverado at Factory Zero. It’s going really well.

I often hear from city officials and leaders that they’re worried about the effects of autonomous vehicles. There’s a concern that personal autonomous vehicles will lead to people traveling greater distances and more city sprawl, because when you don’t have to drive you can watch TV, or read, or take meetings in the car. Is it GM’s responsibility to think through the implications of autonomous vehicles?

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I’m not sure I’m going to suddenly have a retail vehicle that doesn’t have steering wheels and pedals in it, but we do think about that. It is our responsibility. I don’t see autonomous vehicles taking over and changing, widely, the distribution of people; I see them solving the problems of safety and congestion and emissions first, and then maybe someday that happens. Cities are built around where people live and work, and I just don’t see that changing overnight. It’s a very expensive footprint to change.

Cruise operates a driverless ride-hailing service in San Francisco right now. There was a crash over the summer that’s being investigated by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. How do you create a positive safety culture at Cruise?

First of all, everything’s monitored. There are no big mysteries on what’s happening there. Without getting into the detail of that one incident, I would say everything can always be better. We’re driving these cars, and these cars are driving themselves, in a human environment. I’ll take a complaint like, “It took me a little longer to get there than it may have under other circumstances, but it took the safest route, and it managed the interfaces with human drivers better than what I thought.”

I’d also say, the culture in GM on safety is very different than it was five years ago, 10 years ago. We have a system in place that looks at data every day from our fleet; I don’t care what kind of car it is. If we think this is something that could happen again, we’ll do a very deep statistical analysis on what the problem is, the surroundings, the circumstances. There’s a formal forum that happens every week. And we’ll make the decisions. I’m very proud of our record and of the way we handle things when they happen.

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