The first car that General Motors CEO Mary Barra ever became enamored with, as a ten-year-old girl living outside of Detroit, Michigan, was a late-1960s Chevrolet Camaro convertible driven by her cousin.
Even today, her family keeps a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, and her husband and her son are restoring a 1971 Pontiac Trans Am. At the same time, the company that she leads is in many ways leading the pack with regard to autonomous driving technology, developing a fully self-driving production car that will be pressed into service in rideshare and ride-hailing fleets as early as next year.
This dichotomy was on full display in an interview that Mary Barra gave to Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley at CityLab Detroit this week. Shortly after describing the pair of classic cars she and her family have in their garage at the moment, Ms. Barra launched into an explanation of why she’s helping lead GM into the bold new frontier of autonomous vehicles.
“The way we’re driven is to look and say: ‘How do we remove pain points, and make it easier for everyone to move?’,” she told Bradley in front of the CityLab crowd. “It costs a lot to own a car, and it’s an asset that on average, in the United States, most people only use six percent of the time.”
Besides expense, Ms. Barra cited the difficulty and expense of parking – especially in a dense urban center like New York City – as another crucial pain point, along with the tedium of traffic, and the excessive space taken up by parking infrastructure. In the U.S. today, there are three non-residential parking spaces per car on the road, she says. That’s a lot of wasted real estate.
Each of these “customer pain points” helps to explain why ridesharing has become such a promising business, Mary Barra says – even if rideshare only accounts for a tenth of a percent of miles traveled in the U.S. One of her company’s goals with regard to autonomous vehicles, she says, is to grow that percentage by making ridesharing cheaper, safer, and more green with self-driving technology – and removing crucial pain points in the process.
It’s a spiel that we’ve heard in more-or-less the same terms multiple times before, but one that nonetheless does a good job of outlining why General Motors feels there’s progress to be made by putting autonomous vehicles on the road en masse. It’s also one that seems to stand in stark contradiction to a classic car-loving CEO who lives and breathes GM, but it seems that Ms. Barra – much like GM itself – has had to adopt a sort of split personality, with automotive enthusiasm on the one hand, and safe, eco-conscious autonomy on the other.
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