GM CEO Akerson Retires, Mary Barra Takes Over – But What Does It Mean For GM Plug-Ins?


General Motors has announced that CEO Dan Akerson will be leaving the company in January of 2014, and executive vice president of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain Mary Barra will be taking over.

Putting things as bluntly as possible, outgoing CEO Dan Akerson was no friend to plug-in vehicles, or the Chevrolet Volt at GM as far as we can tell.  Mr. Akerson took a position on GM’s Board in July of 2009, and since taking over the CEO reigns on September 1st, 2010 from Ed Whitacre and Chairman duties in January of 2011, the plug-in program at General Motors has gone “silent running.” 

Also gone during his reign at GM was the seemingly daily talks about the happenings with plug-ins at GM, much of the media access to executives was revoked, the technology updates thinned, and the closure of web portals dedicated to cars like the Chevy Volt happened;  you name it…if it was about the electrification of the automobile at GM, whatever was (or was not) happening was now a ‘state secret’ under Akerson.

Looking back now, it turns out pretty much nothing was happening when it came to plug-ins during Akerson’s time at the top – just the implementation of a plan that already was put in motion by the previous management at the General under Rick Wagoner, Bob Lutz and Jon Lauckner – a plan that was held up during the bankruptcy process as “the future” of company, and as a primary reason that the company should be saved.

Outgoing CEO Dan Akerson Stands In Front Of The Car He Really Didn't Do Much For (at least as far as we can tell)

Outgoing CEO Dan Akerson Stands In Front Of The Car He Really Didn’t Do Much For (at least as far as we can tell)

During Akerson’s watch, no new plug-in concepts or new product offerings of consequence have appeared, and almost all the original engineer braintrust and managers behind the Chevrolet Volt/Cadillac ELR have long left the building for greener pastures:

  • Bob Lutz – “father of the Volt” now works with VIA Motors and their extended range trucks, along with his own VL Automotive that buys Fisker shells to turn into Corvette-powered supercars
  • Fritz Henderson – the man called on to make the “bottom line” of the Volt work, moved on to Sunoco in 2010
  • Frank Weber – Global Vehicle Line executive and Chief Vehicle Engineer on the Volt – now plys his trade on BMW’s “I lineup” of vehicles the i3 and i8
  • Denise Gray  – Director of global battery systems – left the company in 2010 to work for a start-up battery company for a short time
  • Rick Wagoner – much maligned former CEO who gave the ‘ok’ to the Volt project
  • Tony Posawatz  – Vehicle Line Director for ‘E-Flex’ vehicles for GM – the man responsible for the Volt’s development into production, who famously “retired” only to immediately resurface as Fisker CEO
  • etc., etc.,

But to be fair, Akerson was a representative of the U.S. Treasury after GM’s rinse through bankruptcy, so he was more concerned with the short-term bottom line (and the government’s money) than the future presence of the company.  And GM has consistently banked profits every quarter since he took the helm.

Will We See A Return Of The High Profile Plug-In Concepts And Future EV Offerings From GM?

Will We See A Return Of The High Profile Plug-In Concepts And Future EV Offerings From GM?

Now that the US Treasury is out of GM, so is Akerson.  And in his place is long time employee, and former Hamtramck plant manager (where the Volt is currently made) Mary Barra.

So what can we expect from Ms. Barra as far as the future of the Chevrolet Volt, and other plug-in vehicles?

Naturally, it is still way too early to tell definitively; but what we can do is look at her track record in the past.  For much of the life of the “current gen” of plug-ins at GM (Chevrolet Volt, Spark EV and Cadillac ELR), she has served as the senior vice president of Product Development & Global Purchasing.

Here are some quotes of note from the new CEO:

“We take enormous pride in the Volt and what it represents – a new era of electric vehicles. And we will take every precaution to assure our customers and the public of our total commitment to safety of anyone who drives the Volt.” – November 28th, 2011 during call on NHTSA investigation into the Volt’s battery

“Whether we design and build in house or work with outside partners, our goal is always to deliver the best technology in the business, as fast as possible, to customers around the world.” – speaking on forming alliances with LG, A123 and SAIC on developing electric vehicle technology – October 10th, 2011

“The plug-in offers a unique opportunity to change the way people commute. Plug-based solutions will play a significant role in our technology portfolio going forward.” – GM Electrification Experience in San Francisco November 2012

“What started out as a technology proof point… has turned into a real-world starting point to push EV technology further and faster than we thought possible five years ago.  The unique propulsion technology pioneered in the Volt – the same technology that will be featured in the Cadillac ELR – will be a core piece of our electrification strategy going forward.” – November 2012

Will The Volt-Based MPV5 Concept Finally Now Be Green-Lighted For Production?

Will The Volt-Based MPV5 Concept Finally Now Be Green-Lighted For Production?

Ms. Barra also noted last year that GM will have up to 500,000 vehicles on the road with some form of electrification by 2017, with a focus on plug-in technology.

Therefore it would seem, at least on first blush, that General Motors is getting a more pro-EV minded boss than was had before in Mr. Akerson.

Perhaps we will see a new beginning of sorts when it comes to plug-ins under Ms. Barra; a person who is looking more at the long-term picture when it comes to the future of the automobile.

And that has to be a good thing!

Mary Barra takes over the top spot at GM on January 15th, 2014.  Also of note: Ms. Berra also becomes the first female CEO over a global automotive company.

Video Below: Mary Berra talks to Becky Quick about “No More Crappy Cars” in a Fortune interview from October:

Category: Chevrolet, General

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28 responses to "GM CEO Akerson Retires, Mary Barra Takes Over – But What Does It Mean For GM Plug-Ins?"
  1. kdawg says:

    “Denise Gray – Director of global battery systems”

    Denise Gray and Mary Barra are both GMI alums and EE’s (same as me, btw). I don’t know the age difference, or if they were classmates, but hopefully some of Denise’s enthusiasm for electric vehicles rubbed off on Ms. Barra.

    1. kdawg says:

      Just did some checking and Mary was class of ’85, while Denise was class of ’86. So, yes they were classmates (I wonder if the same sorority (a very large % of students at GMI are Greek). Mary Barra went on to get her MBA at Stanford, while Denise Gray got her Masters in Engineering at RPI.

    2. Mark H says:

      So an EE with a Volt huh. So how about telling me how to access the Mountain Mode on my MY2012 to alter it from 40% to 90% to act like a sudo Hold Mode.

      1. kdawg says:

        Sounds like you need a Computer Science engineer 🙂
        I’m surprised someone hasn’t hacked this already.

        (Note: I have only used the hold mode in my 2013 about 5 times, and it was usually below 40% when I did)

        1. ModernMarvelFan says:

          In cold winter trips with expected long range driving, it is nice to have hold mode so the heat can be generated from engine instead of wasting precious battery power for it….

  2. Mark C says:

    Maybe she’ll green light the Spark EV for nationwide sales 🙂

    1. scottf200 says:

      Would need to look at sales of all the other similar electrics … makes sense to stockholders.

  3. GeorgeS says:

    “Therefore it would seem, at least on first blush, that General Motors is getting a more pro-EV minded boss than was had before in Mr. Akerson.”

    That says it all. “First Blush”.

    Unfortunately we just don’t know what she will do with the Volt program. I guess we just have to wait and see. Will we even have a Volt gen 2?????

    1. Mark H says:

      Thanks for the EV angle Jay.
      Of course I am as warped/biased as the rest here, but it is hard to imagine any of the major manufacturers not paying attention to EVs at this point. Every manufacturer would love to have the 3,000,000 Prius hybrid jump. Sure they all have to take care of their profit producing vehicles, but with the EV curve 3x ahead of the hybrid curve at the 30 month mark, I don’t think any “new” CEO is going to brush them off.

  4. Schmeltz says:

    I had a long post typed out and then my computer crashed. Anyhow…

    I was suprised at the opinion that Dan Akerson is “not a friend to plug-ins”. I give him credit for going to the NHTSA hearings a few years back and defending the Volt against the naysayers. And whenever he was in front of a mic or camera, he always talked positively of the car and the program. It appeared (whether true or not) that he was pro-EV. Now, there can be a disconnect between what people say and what they actually do. I don’t know the man. I can see by what has been done can lead you to the conclusion that he may privately not be pro-EV. My thought is that at worst, he may be indifferent about plug-ins. He may think, they’re neat technology, they give the company a cool, techy image, but they lose money. The better batteries are further out then he would like. Maybe he thinks that rather than losing a lot more money on these cars now, and for lack of any other serious competitors at the moment, put the brakes on. Sell a couple of thousand Volts every month and be satisfied with the status quo. And let the next CEO (Mary Barra) figure out how to make money on them.

    At best Akerson could have led the EV movement from the front (like Ghosn or Lutz). At worst, he could have outright killed the program. He more or less came out in the middle of the two, and kept the status quo. No more, no less.

  5. PJS says:

    Ms Barra drives a Cadillac anda Corvette. Didn’t see anything resembling a Volt in her garage…

    1. scottf200 says:

      Maybe she’ll get an ELR!

  6. Chris O says:

    Goes to show that the Volt was the most profitable car ever for GM: it helped sell the company as a viable candidate for a bailout. After it performed that task GM no longer showed that much interest in popularizing the technology as the lame ELR, the overpriced coupe nobody will buy demonstrates but I can understand the profitability first attitude. At least GM now has the technology and no doubt it will keep moving forward with it.

    1. kdawg says:

      I bet GM sells all the ELR’s they planned to make.

      1. Brian says:

        I agree, but the fact that they sell out a “very limited production run” does nothing to disprove Chris’ point.

  7. brotherkenny says:

    No product manufactured in a factory has ever made a profit after the sale of a few intial units. Profit is determined over a period of time based on total sales and costs to develop and manufacture. Not everyone in the world is a moron who believes the stupid crap that comes out of the mouths of car people. In fact, despite there being some very dumb and susceptible consumers, most people assume that car people are liars. The Volt loses money because that is the way that GM is operating it’s development. It won’t lose money forever even with this effort to make it appear to be a failure. Additional battery breakthroughs are not necessary for EVs and PHEVs to be both economic for consumers and profitable for car companies.

    On a side note, is there some prerequisite that car company executives be pail, transparent skinned people with no muscle tone. Perhaps it’s breathing all those unburned hydrocarbons

  8. Mark says:

    Mary Barra is a very impressive woman. I’m encouraged by GM’s prospects for the future.

  9. Cody Osborne says:

    Is it time to buy GM Stock yet? I’m thinking buy in January, sell when it hits $50. 🙂

    1. Nix says:

      Time to buy GM stocks was last year.

  10. Josh says:

    A change at the top and no more Treasury strings attached, should mean only good things for the plug-in programs. Wonder if it is too late for any NAIAS surprises?

    Can anyone figure out if she and any involvement/interaction with the “Tesla task force”? It might give another indication of her plug-in stance.

  11. Lou Grinzo says:

    I beg everyone here: Do not jump to conclusions.

    Ms. Barra could turn out to be the biggest promoter of plug-in vehicles since Carlos Ghosn, or she could focus GM on trucks and SUVs, thanks to their traditionally high profit margins. Right now, we simply don’t know what she will do once she’s been CEO for a few months to a year. That kind of job and responsibility can have a dramatic impact on how a person acts, and I could easily see her situation pushing her toward or away from plug-ins.

    The details in the article about the lack of Volt follow-up effort at GM is very disturbing, and it seems clear that almost anything Barra does would be an improvement.

    1. pjwood says:

      This sumation of “GM life after Volt intro” was refreshing because I think Jay wrote what many of us have been thinking. He just adds it up.

  12. Assaf says:

    Sounds like good news to EVs at GM, and to breaking gender glass ceilings!

    As to Denise Gray, her LinkedIn page says this:

    Vice President Powertrain Electrification
    Privately Held; 5001-10,000 employees; Automotive industry

    March 2013 – Present (10 months) Graz, Austria

    So she’s still in the thick of it…

    You go girls!

  13. Assaf says:

    In this NYT interview with Barra, she says

    “I really love the Spark BEV. ”

    I hope this means she’ll make it available nationally?

  14. Just_chris says:

    Electrical engineer with an MBA, that’s a good start, really good start at least she’s an engineer and one who isn’t only trained in yesterday’s technology.

  15. ModernMarvelFan says:

    Well, let us hope that she is NOT a bean counter…

    Hopefully with an EE background she would at least share the same passion for electricfication.

    Also, one major thing about this is that for the first time an EE is taking over the helm at GM. ME is traditionally the dominating engineering at GM. If you look across the boards, most of them had ME background across the senior stuff (except for business and finance majors). Mechanical engineering traditionally hold the R&D power with powertrain and chassis designs. EEs usually only play a supporting role.

    Hopefully, this will be a major shift in the GM for the good thing to come especially with plugin and EVs.

  16. Future EV Driver says:

    Where Dan was a good leader, Mary will excel beyond what Dan achieved.

    Mary has always been a HUGE EV supporter and I would not be surprised of Volt 2.0 news coming faster than many believe.

    Volt 2.0 @$30k plus maybe some MPV news as well. 2014 is going to be a good EV year at GM!!! Go Barra !!!