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GM CEO Mary Barra still sees an autonomous driving future

General Motors (GM) has had quite the year, dealing with the United Auto Workers strike while transitioning to and ramping up EV production, and setbacks with its autonomous driving Cruise unit. Despite all that, the automaker announced a $10 billion share buyback, a dividend increase, and that its reinstating its 2023 guidance.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra sat down with Yahoo Finance Executive Editor Brian Sozzi to discuss the state of the company, EV production, EV battery charging infrastructure, competition, the future of autonomous driving, and more.

Barra assures stockholders on GM's focus after the strike: "We have got to prove that we're going to have EVs people want to buy... and then, with the recent incidents at Cruise, we've got to demonstrate what the right path forward, and we will. I think when we do those and continue to demonstrate that we are going to have growth, strong cash flow, strong margins, I think they'll believe, and I think this was sending a very strong signal that we have confidence that we will."

For more expert insight and the latest market action, click here to watch this full episode of Yahoo Finance Live.

Video Transcript

[AUDIO LOGO]

BRIAN SOZZI: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance. Big day for General Motors, outlining a 33% hike in its dividend and a $10 billion new stock buyback plan. Here are the special guest right now, GM chair and CEO Mary Barra. Mary, good to see you. It feels like we should be doing this interview on an E-ray, Corvette E-ray, not in this conference room.

MARY BARRA: That would be a lot of fun for sure.

BRIAN SOZZI: All right, next time.

MARY BARRA: And then go for a drive.

BRIAN SOZZI: All right, fair enough, next time. So let's start on this $210 billion buyback. Is this a bet on your future being a profitable one from an electric vehicle standpoint?

MARY BARRA: It's a bet on us not only being profitable, but generating cash flow from our strong internal combustion engine business, a growing EV business, a growing software business, and then when we chart the course, from an autonomous vehicle perspective. So it is demonstrating our confidence in our strategy and our ability to grow, generate free cash flow, as well as strong margins.

BRIAN SOZZI: This is a really big number, Mary, very headline grabbing. Why do you think you need it to do this and send that message to investors?

MARY BARRA: Well, I think we're not happy-- I personally am not happy with where the share price is. And I think, you know, when we look at what we've been through from COVID, from semiconductor shortages, and then from the uncertainty around the UAW strike and, you know, the labor situation more broadly, we have certainty now. And we always have had a capital allocation framework and our target cash was on average around $18 to $20 billion. And so when you look at that and you look at the cash that we had, we thought this was the right thing to do to return it to our owners.

BRIAN SOZZI: When you're out there talking to investors, what's some of their biggest concerns? Because I've talked a lot with your CFO Paul Jacobson. And every time I talk to him, the outlook is better than expected. The guidance has been raised before the UAW situation. What have investors been missing?

MARY BARRA: Well, I think investors like certainty. And I think until we got the agreement ratified with the UAW and with Unifor in Canada, I think that was an important milestone. I'm disappointed this year that we haven't delivered more Ultium-based EVs out into the marketplace. That's not an issue with the Ultium platform in general. It was really an automation issue that we will be working our way out of.

We've made progress. Each quarter, we'll continue to make progress. And we'll be out of that by the middle of next year.

But demonstrating, we've got to execute. We've got to prove that we're going to have EVs people want to buy. I'm confident.

And then, you know, with the recent incidents at Cruise, we've got to demonstrate what the right path forward and we will. I think when we do those and continue to demonstrate that we're going to have growth, strong cash flow, strong margins, I think, you know, they'll believe. And I think this was sending a very strong signal that we have confidence that we will.

BRIAN SOZZI: You're an engineer by training, Mary. For the layperson out there, actually such as myself, why is it so hard to scale up EV production in this country?

MARY BARRA: Well, I think there's-- first of all, there's a lot of, you know, when you think about the base of the vehicle, the foundation, and the most important part of an electric vehicle is the battery, the battery pack and a whole new process pulling that together. We were one of the leaders-- setting aside or I say in addition to Tesla-- of doing a dedicated platform with Ultium. And we've had a lot of learnings.

We're making it better as we go. We'll continue to take cost out. But frankly, you know, what's holding us up now is something that-- we just, I think, we're rushing. And we needed to take the right-- have the right people and have made all those changes to get that done.

BRIAN SOZZI: Are you still able to achieve what was a low single-digit profit margin for EVs by 2025?

MARY BARRA: That is what we've indicated and that's the plan that we're executing.

BRIAN SOZZI: Longer term, how do you go from those margins for EVs to something that ICE or the internal combustion engines make?

MARY BARRA: Well, I think, one, when you look at the cost of doing an internal combustion engine vehicle continues to get higher with the compliance requirements. Also, IRA, I think, allows us to get there more quickly. But we've always said, later in this decade that we were going to see parity on those and that's the plan that we're working to.

So how do we get there? It's going to be to continue to improve the battery technology and continuing to make the whole vehicle more efficient. And we've already made dramatic steps in that direction and we'll continue to roll that out.

BRIAN SOZZI: 2035, are you still making gas-powered cars?

MARY BARRA: Well, we have said our vision our plan is to have all light duty vehicles be EV by 2035. And so that's the plan and the portfolio that we're executing. Ultimately, the customer decides. And we have flexibility as we can toggle in plants today and we'll continue to have the ability to toggle between EV and AV. But we do believe in an all-EV future and we'll be more than ready to go with light duty by 2035.

BRIAN SOZZI: I mean, GM, some of your competitors have put out some really good electric cars. Demand has seemed to slow down a little bit. Why do you think that's the case?

MARY BARRA: Well, I think demand, the growth rate has slowed down, but EV adoption is still growing. And so when you think about it though, a lot of the EVs that are out on the road today, they either don't tick all the boxes that a consumer is looking for. I think that's why I'm excited about the GM EVs that we have coming out, whether it's from Chevrolet, GMC, GMC Hummer, Cadillac. I'm very excited. And that's why I want to get them in volume to demonstrate that a customer doesn't have to give anything up when they buy an electric vehicle.

I also think affordability. And when you look at the Chevrolet Blazer EV, and the Chevrolet Equinox EV, as well as the Bolt that we're going to bring back on the Ultium platform, that's been very successful and customers love it. In 2025, I think we're going to really get at that affordability issue.

And during this whole period, what we'll also see is continued expansion of the charging infrastructure. Those are what need to happen. Because to get growth beyond a million units, but two, three, four when you look at the SAR, you know, a 15 to 17 million SAR, you've got to reach that customer that only owns one vehicle. And they need it to do everything for them and they need to count on it. And that's why all those elements are so important to get to widespread EV adoption.

I think it's coming. We never thought it was going to be a straight line. It's going to have ups and downs. We've seen that in other markets that are ahead of the US in EV adoption. But it will come.

BRIAN SOZZI: When you talk to consumers, is the thing still holding them back on EVs range anxiety?

MARY BARRA: Not so much. I mean, we the magic number is 300. When you get to 300 miles of range on a charge, that's when the consumer has confidence from a range perspective.

They still want to know-- they don't want to have-- they don't want to replace that with charging anxiety, so they want to know when they get to a charger it's going to be available and it's going to work. And there's a tremendous amount of work going on, on that as well. And I think those are things that the consumer worries about, but that's why we've really worked hard to make sure that we have offerings above 300 miles-- 300 or above across the portfolio entries we have in EVs.

BRIAN SOZZI: Also working hard has been the Biden administration to roll out infrastructure. And we've talked at length recently with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, at length really about charging stations and building more. What grade would you put on the health of our network? I have chargers by me, Mary, full stop, that just don't work.

MARY BARRA: Well, I think-- and that's one of the things with the partners we're working with. It's not just to have them there, they have to work. And so the partners that we're working with, we're measuring them on reliability and availability, and that how quickly, if there's an issue, they get that resolved. I think the work we did with Tesla to leverage their charging network and even adopting the North American charging standard, I think, overnight doubled the amount of charging infrastructure or charging stations our customers will have as we get into next year.

We also did a very significant charging arrangement with the Pilot company. When you think about Pilot Flying J as you're making a road trip, you want to know that the charger is going to be available for you there. And the fact that it's at a station that's going to have someone there that knows like that if it's not, I think, is going to be important as well. So it will come.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mentioned Tesla, they have a big day coming tomorrow. They're rolling out a square box type SUV. I don't know how other way to put it. Is that Cybertruck, do you see that as a competitor-- a true competitor to the Silverado or the truck that you make?

MARY BARRA: Well, you know, I think when we look at our truck portfolio from an EV perspective, first of all, the Hummer truck is a super truck.

BRIAN SOZZI: It's really nice.

MARY BARRA: It's an incredible vehicle to drive. And again, the radius of turns, et cetera, it's a lot of fun. But then right now we have the Silverado EV work truck out. As we get into next year, we'll have the RST, the more retail version of that along with shortly thereafter the GMC Sierra EV coming. When I look at our truck portfolio, and where we stand with trucks today, and the capability of those trucks from what customers really care about, I'm very confident that we've got a winning strategy from a truck perspective in the EV market.

BRIAN SOZZI: You don't sound worried about this.

MARY BARRA: Well, I always take every competitor extremely seriously and so we'll watch as it evolves. But again, I think we know trucks. And when I look at the trucks, the feedback that we're getting from the fleet customers already, gives me confidence in our truck portfolio.

BRIAN SOZZI: What's your sense of demand? Interest rates are much, much higher year over year. Consumers are battling with a couple extra $100 a month in student loan payments. How do you-- how have you been reading it lately?

MARY BARRA: Well, it's something that we watch very, very carefully of where demand is going to be. It's hard to say. There's so many knobs, as you mentioned, that are turning.

But I think key to going through whatever the demand is going to be is to having the right products and having them priced appropriately. And the strength of our products, we're below the industry average from an incentive perspective. And the discipline that we have, I think, is going to be how we move through next year regardless of where the consumer is.

BRIAN SOZZI: Before I let you go, a lot of focus investor focus on the outlook for Cruise. What is your commitment to that business?

MARY BARRA: Well, first of all, I think we have-- with the progress that the Cruise team has made has been incredible. We have a really strong technical team. Obviously, you know, we've shared that we're doing an independent review of the incident.

We already know we need to be more transparent and have the right relationship with regulators. That's something GM knows how to do and believes is extremely important. So we're already on that path to start rebuilding those relationships and that trust with transparency.

But then also we're doing a safety review and an overall technology review. And when we complete that, that will guide us in the path forward. But I think we have to step back and look at how significant this technology is from a societal perspective. Not only safer than a human driver, we've learned it's got to be significantly safer than a human driver.

But also when you think about people who right now can't drive for whatever reason, giving them mobility because mobility is freedom. So we will be-- and we also have said though, well be measured as we roll out, which is going to give us the ability to be more cost effective. And like I said, we'll share when the reviews are done what our plan forward is.

BRIAN SOZZI: Lastly, do you still see an autonomous future?

MARY BARRA: I do. I do see an autonomous future. And again, we'll be guided by what we learn and what's the right thing to do from a rollout, from a responsible, from a capital perspective as well.

BRIAN SOZZI: And next time we're doing this in an E-Ray. Mary Barra, good to see you in person for a change. GM chair and CEO, thanks for doing this. We appreciate it.

MARY BARRA: Thanks for the opportunity.

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