GM President Dan Ammann framed it this way: "We must ... be spending our time and energy on redefining the future of mobility. If we're to win in this new world order, we cannot be distracted by a serial restructuring of old business models."
Barra & Co. detailed dozens of ways in which the company can grow in that new world order, from a ride-sharing service in New York City to an electric-bike concept. Sure, there were promises of cost cutting and bigger profit margins. But the annual conference took on a more urgent tone, amid the swift success of Uber and other emerging industry players, for example, and the threat of new ones, such as a rumored Apple car.
"There is no question this industry is being disrupted. But we are a disruptor as well," Barra said, adding later: "We are disrupting ourselves."
Her team asked analysts to consider strengths that it believes will help GM thrive in that shifting landscape:
- Connectivity: GM believes its 19-year history with OnStar is an advantage as cars become personal extensions of people's digital lives. For example, customers used the OnStar RemoteLink smartphone app 50 million times over the first half of the year, to start their vehicles remotely or unlock the doors, up from 23 million during all of 2013.
Ammann said OnStar gives GM a platform for one of the company's top priorities: "migrating our customer relationship to the mobile device over time." He said that would enable GM to offer other services -- car sharing, e-bike rental, whatever -- "that are beyond just the traditional owner-driver business model."
- Electric-vehicle technology: Global product chief Mark Reuss said GM's early start on electrification is paying dividends in the form of lower material costs on the Chevrolet Bolt EV, set for a late 2016 launch. Reuss said the battery cell cost will be an industry-low $145 per kilowatt-hour. He sees that falling to $100 by 2022, a figure that impressed analysts.
- Scale: To help pay for investments in new technologies, GM said it's redoubling efforts to wring costs from the business. It said it expects to generate about $5.5 billion in reduced manufacturing, purchasing and other costs by the end of 2018.
Part of those savings will come from lower per-vehicle costs from GM's continued transition to global platforms. For example, GM expects variable profit on the next-generation Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid to rise by $3,500, as the company spreads the cost of the guts of the system -- electric motors, battery cells, etc. -- across more models.
Highlighting the benefits of scale was a tacit rebuttal to Marchionne's criticism that the industry makes inefficient use of its capital, a problem he says can be solved only through consolidation. And GM went out of its way to address another of his gripes: that automakers don't collaborate enough to spread development costs.
Reuss cited a number of its strategic partnerships, from its work with Mobileye NV on sensor-based safety systems to its fuel cell joint venture with Honda, which GM said would produce a "commercially viable fuel cell vehicle" by around 2020.
"There will be many, many more," Reuss said of the ventures. "Together, we can move faster and do more than any of us could do alone."
In a note to investors, RBC Capital analyst Joseph Spak said he was struck by "a more open and honest conversation about the disruptive changes facing the industry and GM."
"Over time, GM needs to convince the market that they truly do have the assets, capabilities and speed," he wrote, "to 'disrupt themselves' and capitalize on the changing world."