Q&A: General Motors on How It Gets Car Buyers to Care About Carbon

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Automaker General Motors knows that cutting its carbon footprint depends on getting buy-in from customers who drive its vehicles, which account for the majority of the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The company is working to improve the fuel economy and emissions performance of its vehicles, and by 2017 GM wants to put 500,000 vehicles with some form of electrification on U.S. roads. Bloomberg BNA’s Andrea Vittorio spoke with GM’s sustainability director David Tulauskas about how the company is convincing consumers to get on board. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bloomberg BNA:

What is GM doing to reduce the carbon footprint of the vehicles it sells?

David Tulauskas:

We are taking a full portfolio approach to it, from looking at today’s traditional internal combustion engine, and making that more efficient; to the vehicle as a system, making that lighter, for example; taking a look at advanced technologies that can be integrated and using those, which could include everything from advanced materials to advanced batteries and systems to full electrification. Then we’re also looking at how we can help consumers use alternative fuels like compressed natural gas.

And it’s a global approach. We sell in 140 different countries. So whereas Brazil has a very robust ethanol infrastructure or Thailand has a robust compressed natural gas infrastructure, we’re trying to reduce our carbon footprint in the context of the markets we sell in and what the customers want. 

Bloomberg BNA:

And in terms of what the customers want, is it challenging sometimes to get them to buy the alternative fuel vehicles or the electrified vehicles that you offer?


It depends. When you can get the right product in the right market, with the right policy infrastructure, you can have a real significant transformation. So it depends. I would say for the most part, yes [we can convince customers] because more efficient, lower carbon-emitting vehicles saves people money. 

Bloomberg BNA:

So besides the saving money aspect of it, how are you convincing customers to care about the carbon footprint of their driving?


Looking at what’s important to them. I’ll use the U.S. market as an example. Customers really care about fuel economy, safety and quality. It rarely varies from segment to segment or year to year. Those are primarily the top three drivers for purchase considerations.

So we don’t necessarily have to educate them about wanting a lower carbon footprint vehicle because that’s what fuel efficiency is. The more efficient it is, the less carbon it emits. They may not know or think about this in the context of carbon or greenhouse gas emissions. But they do know that a more fuel efficient vehicle is going to save them money at the pump and in their wallet. 

Talking Carbon Across Brands

Bloomberg BNA:

You mentioned all the different countries you operate in, and I know there are many different brands within GM, so does the messaging differ then when you’re talking to your different customers about your lower-carbon vehicles?


It absolutely does change on the brand and then even from a geographical perspective.

So let’s take Cadillac, which is a global brand. The Cadillac ELR is a plug-in extended range electric vehicle. In the U.S., we really market that vehicle as art and science. The science is the advanced technology on the vehicle, and that’s not just from a fuel efficiency or electrification perspective but also a safety and connectivity perspective. And the art comes from the progressive styling.

So that’s part of Cadillac’s DNA, and depending on the markets where it’s sold, it may dictate what are the primary messages, or primary examples used to talk about art and science.

Bloomberg BNA:

Could you talk a bit more about how you market for Chevrolet or Buick then?


Chevrolet is today really focused on innovation and dependability—affordable innovation. Chevrolet was the first brand across the U.S. to roll out 4G [LTE mobile broadband] connectivity [in its vehicles]. That’s an innovation within the automotive industry, and they’re doing it on a vehicle that customers can depend on.

Now Chevrolet also has the Volt. It has the Spark EV [electric vehicle]. It also has the stop/start [technology to automatically shut off stopped or idling vehicles] on the Malibu and in eAssist technologies [a mild-hybrid system]. The environmental benefits of having those advanced technologies may not be the lead feature that we talk about from an environmental context, but we do talk about it from an innovation and dependability context.

So for Chevrolet, while we’re talking about innovation and dependability, at the point of purchase, we’re able to translate those into attributes that they care most about—and often it’s fuel economy, not necessarily carbon emissions, per say.

The mainstream consumers are really focused on, “OK well what does this mean in terms of fuel economy?” There is a smaller percentage of consumers that really say. “OK, I understand that this is more efficient. What’s its carbon footprint?”

The great thing about Chevrolet and General Motors is we’ve been working on this for a long time, so we’ve got those proof points, we’ve got the data, and we can talk about it when customers want to.

So one size does not fit all. That’s one thing we've learned. And some messages—I talk about having to speak different languages. I don’t necessarily mean Mandarin versus Spanish. I mean carbon versus fuel economy. We need to understand what they’re going to understand best and what they’re going to translate into value for them.

When I’m talking to an audience that really knows carbon, I talk about how it’s a challenge to talk about carbon to mainstream consumers. But if mainstream consumers absolutely care about the environment, then they care about fuel efficiency.

Fuel Efficiency, Carbon Emissions Linked

Bloomberg BNA:

And the two go hand in hand, right? Fuel efficiency ends up reducing carbon emissions, too.


Yes, exactly.

And it's also like start/stop technologies. It’s one attribute of an electrified vehicle that we found consumers totally understand, and it’s been that understanding that has driven customers to ask for it. So we’re proliferating that feature across our portfolio of vehicles, helping them achieve a lower carbon footprint and be more efficient.

Bloomberg BNA:

What is stop/start?


Start/stop is really cool. When you come to a stoplight, your engine turns off. People get that. It’s like when you’re brushing your teeth and you leave the water running, you turn it off because you’re wasting it. When you leave a room, you turn off the lights because if you left the lights on when you’re not in there, that’s wasteful, and it’s costing money, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s start/stop.

And people go, “Jeez, I get that, so my engine turns off?” Because when you’re just sitting there idling, you’re getting zero miles per gallon.

Investing in Electrification.

Bloomberg BNA:

As you’re talking to customers, trying to get them engaged, why is it important to your overall company? I know you have overall sustainability targets and emissions targets. How much do those goals depend on your customers?


Significantly. You know, we have a commitment to sell 500,000 vehicles with some form of electrification [by 2017]. We did that because as a company, strategically, we have made a long-term investment into the electrification of our vehicles.

We see electrification as playing a very long-term, strategic role in the automobile industry. We need to transition from gas to electrification.

And we’ve been working on this for a really long time. We're the only manufacturer that builds both our own battery packs and our own electric motors. And we’ve made significant commitments, billions of dollars, in terms of developing the intellectual capability within the company, hiring the engineers and investing in the infrastructure to build plants to make these key components.

Basically, we’ve made a long-term strategic commitment to electrification, and it’s important to engage a multitude of stakeholders to help make this a mainstream technology in the market. 

More information on GM's carbon-cutting efforts is available at http://gmsustainability.com/.