GM CEO Barra avoids driverless-taxi timeline in Cruise update

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra did not address the timeline for GM Cruise LLC's plans to deploy a fleet of driverless taxis during a brief update on the driverless car development unit at the automaker's first virtual annual shareholder meeting.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra

Leaders at GM and Cruise have been largely quiet in recent months about the progress toward a planned robo-taxi launch this year. The quiet period comes after significant hype for the autonomous vehicle unit in late 2017 and into 2018 as the former start-up laid the groundwork for a commercial launch of its autonomous technology. 

"We will be gated by safety, we’re working aggressively," Barra said Tuesday, repeating the hedge that's been more frequently used since October when GM Cruise partnered with Honda Motor Co. "We have also worked very specifically on what safety demonstration we have to make ... as we achieve those milestones we will then be in a position — in a geo-fenced environment — to be able to truly launch an AV system in a rideshare environment without a driver."

Barra did not directly address Cruise's plans to launch this year and did not reaffirm a plan to meet that goal. A company spokesman said the self-imposed 2019 launch deadline has not changed.

GM is aggressively investing in its Cruise operation. The Detroit automaker plans to spend roughly $1 billion on Cruise in 2019 after spending about $700 million last year. That includes hiring another 1,000 people this year. Cruise has also garnered more than $6 billion in outside investments from Japan's SoftBank Investment Advisers, Honda and a group of institutional investors led by T. Rowe Price Group Inc.

As GM makes the pricey pivot to autonomy, electrification and mobility, it is executing a global restructuring designed to cut cost and redirect capital to these expensive Auto 2.0 efforts.

Barra addressed this restructuring, which includes stopping production at five North American plants and cutting 15% of its salaried workforce. The restructuring moves are designed to save GM some $6 billion by 2020.

GM is offering transfer opportunities to United Auto Workers-represented employees, and Barra says more than half of the 2,800 "affected workers" have already accepted moves to other GM-UAW facilities.

At the same time GM shutters Lordstown Assembly in Ohio, Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, Warren Transmission and Baltimore Operations, it has announced a handful of investments and new jobs at other U.S. plants.

In Ohio, GM said last month it is planning to spend $700 million to add a total of 450 new jobs at factories in Toledo, Parma and Moraine. And in Michigan, the automaker is investing $300 million and adding 400 jobs at its small-car assembly plant in Orion Township to build a new Chevrolet electric vehicle. Further product allocation and plant investments are likely to be a key talking point between GM and the UAW this fall when the parties renegotiate their contract.

These actions and the downsizing of GM's salaried workforce are just the latest in GM's roughly four-year effort to reposition the automaker from one that tried to be all things to all people to "one that is very strategic, agile and drives profitable growth," Barra said. 

"Transformation is an incredibly dynamic process and as I told my team, if we get it right we will never be finished," she said. "We will continue to act with speed, with discipline, and integrity to drive the business performance we need to win in today’s market and in the future."

Twitter: @NoraNaughton