Mary Barra does not consider herself a designer.
She is by training an electrical engineer. But in the construction of a modern automobile, it no longer seems helpful—or, perhaps, possible—to rely on conventional definitions of what design is or is not. Questions of aesthetics relate to questions of engineering; and questions of engineering relate to questions of manufacturing, operations, supply-chain management, safety, quality, and profits. "When we look at designs," says Barra, "we're also looking at: It's beautiful, but can we build it? And can we build it consistently with quality?"
As the executive responsible for the design and engineering of every General Motors vehicle around the globe, as well as the highest-ranking female executive in the carmaker's history, Barra oversees everything from the contours of a Chevy that might not hit the market for several years to the performance of a Cadillac that rolled off a Michigan assembly line just a few days ago. In a traditional sense, Barra won't be putting pencil to paper to render drawings of the next generation of GM cars. But she's arguably doing something more difficult: If her company is going to survive, she will have to design its future.
Barra has about 36,000 people reporting to her. When she's not at the company's proving ground in Milford, Michigan, she's working from her office on the 39th floor of the GM headquarters, in downtown Detroit, or at GM's sprawling technical center in Warren, Michigan. Or she may be traveling to Brazil. Or to China. Or to an assembly line somewhere in the U.S., so she can get a firsthand look at production—one of her past jobs was running GM's assembly plant in Hamtramck, Michigan—and discuss problems and ideas with line workers. "I used to say I've been to every GM [assembly] plant in the world," Barra tells me when I meet with her in Detroit, in August, "but there's a new one in China now that I haven't yet visited."
She's taken on the GM job—her official title is senior vice president of global product development—at an auspicious moment. After suffering through a taxpayer-financed government bailout, GM has had a winning streak of late: six successive profitable quarters, capped by a $2.5 billion earnings windfall this past August. To a certain extent, these achievements reflect GM's newfound financial freedom. Debts and responsibilities that had long burdened the company were largely shucked off during the recent financial restructuring. GM now has far fewer employees; far fewer "underperforming assets," such as idle plants; and far more flexible labor agreements. Its costs are now closer to those at its overseas competition. In addition, GM's car sales have been boosted—temporarily, most likely—by the earthquake that ravaged Japan and stifled production at Toyota and Honda.
And yet, even with these improvements, GM will almost certainly face an enormously difficult next decade. Barra told me the biggest risk to GM is its "great, very formidable competitors." But that's only part of it. GM is under intense pressure to change, and the burden of orchestrating that transition falls largely to Barra. Dan Akerson, GM's new CEO and Barra's boss, has asked that she accelerate new-vehicle development cycles—which at GM and elsewhere in the industry require between three and four years' time—with the goal of reducing development and production costs by 25%. In effect, he's asking Barra to change one of the fundamental rules governing global auto production, to find a way to apply a sort of Moore's law to automaking and speed up the flexibility of the whole enterprise. Equally daunting, Barra faces looming new mileage requirements from the federal government, which will require drastically changing the design and engineering of future cars. Putting these two challenges together, Barra must try to unravel some of the most vexing puzzles in global manufacturing: How do you transition a worldwide system to a faster metabolism? How do you make trade-offs between a car's performance and its efficiency? Is it now possible, thanks to emerging automotive technologies, to somehow have it all? Or is this a design brief without a solution?
Friday is Barra's favorite day of the week—but not because it signals the start of the weekend. Friday is the day Barra heads out to GM's proving ground in Milford, about 45 minutes northwest of Detroit, to spend the day test-driving vehicles that are making their way through GM's product pipeline. A spin on the track is less about rendering a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a new model than trying to calibrate whether the car she's driving is precisely what it should be. For instance: Can you feel the way it absorbs imperfections in the road? "We want a smooth ride," says Barra. But sometimes, depending on the car, not too much of a smooth ride. A Camaro shopper might want to feel some texture from the tarmac; a Buick buyer seeks what GM engineers call the "library quiet" of that particular brand's interiors. Just before I visited Barra, she had been test-driving the Chevy Sonic and Chevy Spark, two tiny cars that are being built by GM this fall and winter, respectively. If they succeed, these two vehicles—fuel-sipping, sporty, inexpensive—may demonstrate that an American-car company can actually make a profit on small cars, which has long been an elusive business proposition. The hurdle, as Barra puts it, "is that these can't be cars where people think they're settling."
"Both of these vehicles are built off of a core architecture," Barra continues. It's another way of saying that these cars are being built on what's more commonly referred to as "global platforms." This means that all the design and engineering work for a new model is done in one place (Korea, in the case of the Sonic and Spark), and is swiftly adapted to plants and markets around the globe. To Barra, it's the simplest way to get more vehicles into the marketplace more quickly. If more cars worldwide share common components, including engines and frames, the efficiencies of scale become obvious. A new model that has already been introduced in, say, Asia can be quickly tweaked and built for consumers in the U.S. or Brazil.
So far about 30% of GM's products rely on global core architectures. But by 2018, Barra intends for that number to reach 90%. Many of the auto-industry analysts I spoke with see GM's global-platform effort as an important and laudable bet, even as they remain skeptical that a full transition will cut vehicle-development costs as dramatically as GM CEO Akerson is requesting. And in the process, there is a danger of leaning too heavily on a one-vehicle-fits-all strategy—something Barra is fully aware of: "You don't want to say, 'Here's our global midsize car. Hope it works for you,'" she tells me. "What India might want is very different from what Canada might want." And it's not only a matter of different tastes; it's designing an automobile that can span an emerging market such as India, where roads can be primitive and may create serious durability issues, to a developed market like Germany, where the road system is among the best in the world. A car's global architecture, in other words, has to be flexible enough, both stylistically and mechanically, to be modified for any country in the world.
The burden of solving this problem—which, Barra says, requires an interrelated solution of design, engineering, manufacturing, and marketing—falls not just on her but on her team. She is fortunate that her predecessor, Bob Lutz, the former GM vice chairman, prepared the way, in part by giving designers more leeway to experiment (the result was a string of successes such as the Chevy Cruze and Chevy Volt) while also pushing managers to pay attention to small but crucial details. ("Bob Lutz had the ability to actually look at something and say, "It's dumb, or ugly, or cheap," says Maryann Keller, a veteran auto analyst.) Barra—who worked under Lutz and still speaks regularly to him—points out that the foundation Lutz installed is still in place. For instance, under Barra, the head of GM's design team, Ed Welburn, remains the point person for all models around the globe.
Barra's Detroit office is an expansive suite located in the hushed inner sanctum that houses the carmaker's most elite executives. Her windows offer a panoramic view of downtown. But personally she is open and unpretentious—a Michigan native and hockey mom who seems as game to talk about her two kids as she is about power-train engineering. On the wall behind her desk hangs an enormous photograph of a Cadillac CTS Coupe, a stylish model from a few years back that promised to rejuvenate the brand as long as the company could figure out how to manufacture the swooping sheet metal panel in back. It was Barra's team that found the solution.
Technology, she knows, will be critical to GM's future. Already, Barra says, computer-aided modeling, as well as 3-D prototyping and printing, are helping to speed the time it takes for a car to go from design to showroom. Technology will be even more essential in tackling the fuel-efficiency problem. Currently, carmakers must achieve an average of 27.5 miles per gallon with their fleets; by 2025, federal laws mandate, the average will need to hit 54.5 mpg. Some of the gap will be bridged by smaller models like Sonic and Spark. But even there, Sonic's highway ratings for miles per gallon will likely fall only in the mid-40s, for instance. The Volt—an electric vehicle with a small engine to extend battery range—offers a more radical model. Other vehicles will rely on what GM is calling "e-assist": an increasingly popular "start-stop" technology that turns off your car engine momentarily at, say, a traffic light and thus conserves fuel. These vehicles also have the capacity for regenerative braking, a technology that captures the energy from the brakes and uses it to boost mileage.
But the grand quest for Barra at the moment is something alternately called "lightweighting" and "mass reduction." These are efforts within GM to design and build cars that are significantly lighter. One imagines the design team at GM slicing heavy chunks off the clay models they build as prototypes—let's just make the damn thing shorter. That's not how it works. "It's not kilograms," Barra says. "We're looking for grams." Her group is trying to whittle and shave mass off multiple car parts—often by substituting lighter, composite materials (such as carbon fiber or special metal alloys) in place of the usual steel and aluminum. The hope is that, with a thousand small cuts, they can maintain performance and safety, yet still reach a threshold that allows a magnifying impact—that is, if these slight reductions in weight can at some point permit the use of significantly different fundamental components. Thus, a vehicle of slightly less mass might allow for a smaller power train—the group of components, including the engine and transmission, that delivers the automobile's power. That would lead to an enormous reduction in mass, and therefore a large gain in fuel efficiency. Other, much lighter core components could in turn follow. "Smaller mass," Barra points out, "smaller brakes." It's a clear example of how a bevy of small and painstaking decisions under Barra's watch, if done properly, might add up to one very large leap forward.
Barra and GM are not alone[/b] in trying to create global architectures, or in trying to reduce car mass in pursuit of fuel efficiency. Even new manufacturers in China are moving rapidly in a similar direction, Barra points out, with bold plans to gain international market share. Which means that along with all those systemic changes Barra has to manage, she also has to make sure GM's vehicles are attractive, compelling, lust-worthy consumer products.
Despite Toyota's ascendancy, GM is still the world's biggest automaker. Yet in the U.S. at least, it is not regarded as the best. Many at GM—Barra among them—describe this as a perception gap, a legacy from years ago that has been unfairly reinforced by bitterness over the "Government Motors" bailout that saved the company. Barra's father was a die-maker for Pontiac for 39 years. She began working the GM assembly line as a quality-control employee when she was 18 years old and has worked at GM ever since. For her, eliminating the perception gap is not only a professional obligation. It's a personal thing as well.
So how do you get customers to come around? "It's something that didn't happen overnight," Barra says of the gap, "and it won't change overnight." Still, she contends that there is a road map in the company's recent experience. She points to the Volt—the hybrid that was named Motor Trend's 2011 Car of the Year and has burnished the company's image as a risk taker and design innovator—and to a less obvious example, GM's Buick brand. I happen to have grown up in a two-Buick family; I can well recall how the models of the 1970s and 1980s had a tendency to float over the road, in a not altogether reassuring way. The average age of Buick buyers today remains among the oldest in the industry. Yet at the same time, a funny thing has been happening. In China, where GM reintroduced the brand in 1999, Buick has seen extraordinary success. And over the past year in the U.S., thanks to sleek new models—the Enclave (which Barra often drives), LaCrosse, Regal, and the forthcoming Verano—Buick has been the fastest-growing luxury-car brand. "It's outselling Lexus," Barra notes.
In the lobby of GM's Detroit headquarters, there's a showroom of the company's newest models. Before I met with Barra, I strolled through to take a look. The Volt models screamed for attention. But the design evolution in Buick was equally striking: This was not my parents' car. "The reaction you're having is what most people have," Barra tells me later that day. "'That's a Buick?'" She links it to the larger problems of branding that bedevil GM. "You talk about the perception 10 or 15 years ago of what a Buick was," Barra says. "Clearly that's in certain consumers' minds. In my mind, the one and only way out of that is great products. That is the only way out of it."
So it isn't just a problem of marketing. As Barra sees it, marketing can get the customer to the dealer and get them smack in front of the car. Then comes the moment of truth—when design, engineering, performance, and a slew of other factors she oversees come into play. At that moment, she has to deliver, or else permanently lose her chance to redeem a wayward GM customer. "Our biggest challenge is to get them in the vehicle," she says. "Because if you get that one chance, where they go, 'Okay, maybe I'll give Buick, or Chevy, or Cadillac, or GMC a try'—and you let them down?" She pauses and seems to shudder at the idea.
Photos by Joe Vaughn
A version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.