NEW YORK – Modestly denying that life has changed sinceChairman Dan Akerson recently named her as one of his potential successors, Mary Barra says she's happy with her current position as the U.S. auto maker’s global product-planning chief.
The 50-year-old GM executive brushes aside Akerson's remarks as she meets with automotive and business writers here, insisting she has “the best job in the world.”
Barra is among several notable GM executives to be singled out by Akerson as possible candidates for his job, including Vice Chairman Steve Girsky and North America President Mark Reuss.
Barra says she's confident GM has the financial wherewithal to plan future products. Declining to specify what programs currently are approved for production, she reveals plans stretch into the next decade. Planning groups are examining potential solutions for all of the auto maker’s global markets.
And while she will not speculate on whether there could be future production versions of GM’s newly introduced 2.2L V-5 engine for an Indy car, she does say, “There are real benefits from our race activities.”
Barra declines to discuss GM's recently launched collaboration with French auto makerPeugeot Citroen. She does not confirm whether the joint venture might include co-development of vehicles or joint purchasing of parts, materials and components.
But her teams are looking into whether people will drive differently in the future and what potential fuel economy and emissions requirements will be like in GM's major markets.
“We're exploring different scenarios,” Barra says. “But we can't do endless programs because you still have to place your bets. We have the resources to do that kind of work.
Nevertheless, she is challenging her propulsion team to develop the most efficient internal-combustion engines despite pressure to pursue electrification, especially in China.
“We're just starting to roll out the (electric Chevrolet) Volt in Europe and are seeing growth in California and China,” she says. “We're still dealing with people who don't understand the concept of extended range and what a value proposition it is.
“I personally believe there will breakthroughs in battery technology,” Barra forecasts. “I would want (both) lower prices and more range.”
She’s also confident about the future of fullsize pickups and SUVs. “We plan on continuing these (models) because they're an important part of the market. We're a consumer-driven company.”
However, Barra predicts the launch of smaller pickups in the U.S. that will offer more fuel efficiency. GM already has said it will bring its next-generation global Chevrolet Colorado pickup to the U.S.
“CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) regulations will force us to be compliant,” she says, while declining to share the fuel-economy numbers GM is planning on to meet future regulations.” She also suggests that compressed natural gas will play a role in future trucks. “It’s going to be part of the solution.”
Quality also will play an important role in future products. “I'm passionate about that,” she says, while noting GM not only will focus on initial vehicle quality but also ensure the long-term quality of its products.
Part of Barra’s task will be meeting the demands of buyers who want more technology in their vehicles. “We need to help people understand how (technology) works,” she says, adding that electronics will have to merge with longer lifecycles of vehicles.
To stay on top of all the product programs she oversees, Barra travels globally and uses videoconferencing extensively to stay current with developments in Europe, China, India and other markets.
She maintains GM’s Adam Opel European subsidiary still is important to GM and has a big role in ongoing vehicle development.
“As the U.S. and European markets drive toward better fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, some technology will serve both markets,” Barra says. “But I don't think a world car is ever going to work, because buyers (in different markets) have different needs and wants.”