An Exercise In Building The Future: General Motors & The Art of Sustainability

General Motors has released their 2017 Sustainability Report, which outlines a series of core objectives regarding future mobility. While it addresses forthcoming product lines, it really goes beyond only producing cars. The report reflects GM’s careful examination of society’s more challenging issues and pressing concerns, adopting a series of socially responsible objectives to address said challenges.

With Teeth

When looking at these initiatives from GM, Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow and his writings in Social Responsibility and Economic Efficiency come to mind. In my engineering studies this past semester at Wayne State University in Detroit, we read this very piece from Arrow in my Professional Ethics class. Dr. Ryan Fanselow, who taught our section, likened Arrow’s position to one that “had teeth.”

During lecture, Dr. Fanselow said Arrow’s work supports the notion that corporate social responsibility is more than just good PR, and there are two forms of it: one with teeth and the other without. The “without teeth” approach is more lax, as in it would be nice if companies considered social responsibility, contrasted to the view that “has teeth” and says such obligations to society are non-negotiable.

GM’s most recent Sustainability Report has teeth.

Sustainability as it pertains to the automaker is broken down like this:

Visionary Thinking

It’s best to conceptualize this in terms of zero: as in zero crashes, zero emissions, zero congestion. Grand as this vision may be, this is what GM is pushing for in the world of tomorrow. According to the automaker, 1.25 million lives are lost each year in traffic accidents; there are 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide pumped into the air via automobiles, and commuters are facing more stress and congestion.

“We are in the midst of a transportation revolution as groundbreaking technologies and evolving customer lifestyles transform our vehicles and how we use them,” explained Mary Barra, General Motors Chairman and CEO. “We have the right team, technology, partners, manufacturing scale, and mindset to lead this revolution.”

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra talks with the media before the company’s annual stockholders meeting, Tuesday, June 12th, 2018 at GM’s Global Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. Photo: Steve Fecht for General Motors.

Electric Vehicles & Fuel Efficiency

GM plans to globally launch at least 20 all-new, all-electric vehicles by 2023. As Bolt EV production increases, GM wants to lead key electrification markets like the United States and China, and is working with utilities, communities, and governments to expand charging infrastructure. GM’s partnership with Honda in this arena is growing as well.

The timing is impeccable, considering a recent study from AAA found consumers are warming up to the idea of electric vehicles.

In the short-term, GM is setting the engineering and benchmarking objectives for their current portfolio higher in the interest of fuel economy and performance. This includes refining engines and transmissions while concentrating more on aerodynamics. A stronger materials strategy is being employed to reduce weight.

Each of these aforementioned objectives is best seen in the forthcoming Silverado, which includes both new and redesigned engines, and a comprehensive mixed materials strategy. In order to get the truck ready for the market, GM doubled their engineering targets across the board.

According to GM, such measures have already resulted in the loss of more than 5,000 lbs. across 14 new-vehicle models, saving 35 million gallons of gasoline and 300,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.

2019 Silverado RST. Photo: Chevrolet.

Responsible Manufacturing

By the end of this year, renewable sources will represent 20 percent of GM’s global electricity use. By 2050, GM wants all of their electricity needs to be met by renewable energy sources. Essentially, if the vehicles are to be efficient, then so should the manufacturing of them.

Since 2010, General Motors has reduced the energy intensity of its operations by 15 percent, generating $135 million in cost savings. A 2020 goal of cutting carbon intensity in the company’s operations by 20 percent has already been surpassed.

Autonomous Driving & Personal Mobility

While consumers may be slowly embracing electric vehicles, cars that drive themselves are another story. Consumers remain hesitant, but GM’s latest Sustainability Report covers the importance of producing automated vehicles at scale.

At the same time, the report acknowledges new trends in personal transportation and how things like car and ridesharing are reducing congestion.

Photo: General Motors.

Social Impact & Diversity

On average, GM recruits an employee for a STEM position every 26 minutes. While there is debate over the current status of STEM workers, GM says the United States lags behind other nations when it comes to an emphasis on what STEM stands for: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. To help counteract this, the automaker is actively supporting programs to reach more than 40,000 students this year alone.

GM’s latest Sustainability Report also outlines the company’s desire to see more females in leadership roles, and the automaker’s Women in Action Initiative has attracted nearly 7,000 employees. Currently, 32 percent of top leadership positions at GM are held by women, the most notable being Barra, the automaker’s CEO.

Mary Barra speaking to the media in 2017. Photo: General Motors.

Future Considerations

GM’s Sustainability Report stands in contrast – and in a good way – to how non-industry types have likely always seen automakers: as a rinse and repeat operation: cars are built at the factory, they go to the dealership, they are sold, the end. That cycle in the industry is evolving, yes, but even in its evolution, it’s predictable: cars are going to be manufactured and sold – perhaps differently in time because of how we are changing culturally – but still.

We can count on cars being part of our life in some way.

What is (or was) not as predictable is how automakers like GM would enact so many resources to benefit so many facets of society. In my early years in the car business, I don’t remember any such reports on sustainability. I don’t recall any initiatives that sought to address so many concerns in our world. I am sure they were there (my vantage point of the auto industry was different then) but I would be willing to bet such reports were not as ambitious or as actionable as they are now.

To achieve the things laid out in GM’s latest Sustainability Report, it’s going to take a team effort. In order to make this work, we will all need to grow a pair: teeth that is.

Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan. He studies mechanical engineering at Wayne State University, serves on the Board of Directors for the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation, and is a loyal Detroit Lions fan.

GM’s 2017 Sustainability Report can be found here.

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