Making Greener Cars by Cutting Energy Usage with General Motors’ Michael Robinson

June 6, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have on the phone with us, Mike, Michael Robinson. He’s the Vice President of Environment, Energy, and Safety Policy of the legendary General Motors Company. Welcome to Green is Good, Mike Robinson. MICHAEL ROBINSON: Thank you, John. Thank you, Mike. I appreciate it. Glad to be with you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Mike, we’re so honored to have you today, and we say that with really true respect because what Mike and I have learned in our journey over the last three years on Green is Good is that when companies like yours really make changes and move into the world of sustainability, the needle really moves, so we’re so excited today to have you on, Mike, and to be talking about all the great things green that you’re doing at GM. What do you do? Your role is a big role, as Vice President of Energy, Environment, and Safety Policy at GM. What are your true responsibilities that are under that heading? MICHAEL ROBINSON: It’s quite an impressive title, John, but really, the gist of it is, it’s everything about sustainability. I’ve got a lot of responsibility for a lot of major policy decisions, as you say, in the environment/energy area. But within that overall umbrella, we’ve got a lot of activity going on within the company. We’ve got legions, I mean legions and legions of people that are working on sustainability issues every day with respect to our facilities, of course, and also our vehicles. Part of my job is really to help create a culture where that is sort of embedded into the way we operate in everything we do, and that is really the exciting part of the job, is to sort of unleash the talent that we have, both at our plants and in our engineering organization and our purchasing organization. Throughout the company, we have literally hundreds of thousands of employees, and what I’ve learned in this job is that the generation of engineers and just average employees that are coming up through the organization now have grown up with sustainability as sort of a core value, and it really does create opportunities for us as a company. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mike, what we’ve learned with such great, and like I said earlier at the top of the show, legendary brands like yours, there’s so much to do. How do you choose? How do you prioritize and message that to the thousands of employees you have, so you can decide which issues to tackle first, and then which ones are you tackling first? MICHAEL ROBINSON: It really starts, for us, with sort of keeping it simple, if you will. We have some core initiatives that we decided as a matter of leadership we needed to tackle. When you look at our vehicles, for instance, everything we do right now is about finding ways to match up advanced technologies with what customers need, and provide value there. In our plants, everything we do is about not only building quality products, but doing it in a way that creates a sustainable business model from the standpoint of what kind of energy we use, how much energy we use, how much water we use, how much waste we have, and it’s really a completely integrated story. We literally have a strategy board that I’m a part of that meets on a monthly basis that talks about strategic sustainability issues, environment energy issues. It’s some of the top leadership in the company. We meet every month. We talk about how we’re doing against our goals, and that’s how we’re able to achieve, I think, some of the things that we’ve set in motion here from the standpoint of the major objectives, for instance, landfill-free plants. We’ve got over 150 manufacturing facilities worldwide, and we set a goal that by the end of 2010, at least half of those plants or more would be landfill-free. We’ve overachieved against that target, and we’re going to set new targets to be even more aggressive in that area, but that means that each of these facilities, some of which are assembly plants, powertrain facilities that build engines or transmissions, the first time you or any of your listeners takes a bag of trash to the curb on trash day, you’ve just taken more to a landfill than any of these facilities. That, to us, is a testament to the people we have working with us at the plants and also our suppliers. This is a team sport, and it’s really been a rewarding exercise for us all to be part of. You set high-level objectives, and then you sort of unleash the organization to figure out creative ways to get that done. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, energy efficiency, resource preservation, greener vehicles, and as you just talked about, waste reduction and landfill-free facilities. Talk about energy. Since energy cuts both ways, both in your plants and also in making greener cars, talk first about what you’re doing to make your facilities more energy-efficient, then segue into the greener vehicles that our listeners want to buy and enjoy that GM produces. MICHAEL ROBINSON: Sure, glad to, John. The fact of life for us is that if we reduce the amount of energy, not only are we doing the right thing for the environment, we’re saving money, which allows us to translate that into lower costs for our customers. It’s a win-win from the standpoint of doing the right thing and being a good steward of the environment, but also delivering products that our customers can afford. From the standpoint of how we go about this, we have a team of folks that are just relentlessly looking at energy options. We use more renewables than virtually anybody in manufacturing right now. We use more landfill gas than anybody else we know of. We use wind, we use solar, we use hydro, and we make the business cases one at a time, and the landscape changes over time in terms of what the best options might be. That’s a relentless pursuit, and then of course just the reduction in the amount of energy we need to build a car. Cars are an incredibly complex thing to build. I’m absolutely amazed every time I go through our own plants and watch the operations and talk to the folks that are doing these jobs, at just how incredibly complicated and sophisticated this business is, yet because of our size, when we make decisions that allow for savings of a fraction of an amount of energy per vehicle, we can have a huge impact in reducing the amount of energy used overall, and reducing the amount of impact on the environment. When we set goals in 2005 to reduce the amount of energy we use, we did do in a five-year period, basically reduce by 40% the amount of energy we’re using in our plants. These are normalized data. It’s not just because we went through what we had to go through a few years ago. These are pretty incredible numbers, and really, it’s just a matter of focus for the organization. It’s not just Robinson’s sustainability team; this is an enterprise that includes manufacturing, engineering, purchasing, like I said, everybody is fully into the game and totally supportive of what we have going on here. Consequently, that translates into accomplishing goals that are pretty tough when you look at them on paper, but I’m pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished. The other side of it is the vehicles’ side of the story. I will tell you that we are in a much better position than we were just a few years ago, from the standpoint of delivering fuel economy across the board in every segment. We’ve got a much more balanced portfolio of products. We have products, I think, that will appeal to the vast majority of our buyers, both here and abroad. That makes a difference. People, especially in today’s climate with the fuel prices being what they are, are more sensitive than ever to the cost of a fill-up. We have products that will meet their needs, from subcompacts right through the truck markets. That’s another part of the equation that we’re pretty happy about. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Mike, you’ve been at GM since 1984, and you have, then, a great perspective because of your longevity there. How long have you had this title of Vice President of Environment, Energy, and Safety Policy? How do you get your employees to not only talk a good talk, but obviously this is a DNA issue and a cultural issue at GM. How do you get them to walk the great walk that you guys are on? MICHAEL ROBINSON: I try not to hold them back, John. It’s incredible. I have been there 26 years, going on 27 years, and I’ve worked in a number of different capacities. I’ve been on this assignment for about a year-and-a-half. Prior to that, I had worked in this area with the folks that had some responsibility in this area for about 10 years, so I didn’t walk into it as a newcomer, but I had a lot of familiarity with a lot of our operations. I knew our past practices, and I knew what the opportunities were, quite frankly, as we cleared through the challenges we had back in 2009 and moved forward. So, I did have some perspective about where we were then, and where we had an opportunity to go. I’ll give you an example of just how great an opportunity this is, from the standpoint of people. I did a web chat on sustainability issues not too long ago, and it came at a time when it was one of those times when you knew people were going to be getting ready for holidays, and so they might have other things on their mind. We did a web chat, and talked about everything that people wanted to talk about. We had over 5,000 GM employees tie into this conversation, and I was absolutely amazed that there was that much interest, that much involvement, great questions, great ideas, some of which we’ve implemented since then. It just was, to me, a data point, if you will, about just how involved our people are. If we unleash them to come forward with the ideas that they’re capable of, boy, we can accomplish some really great things. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just great. Let’s talk about, Mike, some of the cars. Talk about what, right now, are some of the new GM models that are more energy-efficient, and what’s in the pipeline. MICHAEL ROBINSON: I’ll start with the vehicle that everybody seems to be talking about and we’re happy for, and that’s the Volt. This was a vehicle that we took from concept to production in about a three-year period of time, and that would be tough for even a conventional internal combustion vehicle, but to talk about this technology, which is a battery electric vehicle with extended range capability, it’s just been a tremendous success so far. It’s got a lot of attention. The thing I’m happiest about is when I get somebody into the vehicle that hasn’t driven it before, and they make certain assumptions about what they can expect, they are absolutely blown away with the performance of the vehicle, how it handles, how it drives, how quickly it accelerates, how much it drives like a real performance car, and at the same time, delivers about 40 miles of range, depending on the weather and the driving conditions and everything else, on pure battery electric. If they need more, they’ve got it in terms of gas-powered generator that drives the electric drive system. We’re pretty excited about it, and we’ve had a number of opportunities to display the product to policy leaders and just consumers. We had an electric drive meeting here last week in Washington. We had beaucoup people that could not wait to get inside the vehicle, crawl around it, and drive it. We use the Volt as an opportunity to explain where we’re going with advanced technology, but it’s not just about the Volt. Some of the same technology that we’ve used in that vehicle, you’re going to start to see variations of in other vehicles, like even the Buick LaCrosse is going to have a system next year that we call e-assist, and it’s going to take a LaCrosse from 25 miles per gallon on the highway to 37 miles per gallon on the highway. It’s not going to be a plug-in, but it is going to have some of the technology capabilities of the Volt system embedded in it so you get that kind of mileage. Same for the Regal. Same for the next generation Malibu. We’re learning through the Volt program a lot about what we can deliver to customers that may be less of an expense than a pure battery electric, but still delivers some of the values. We’re very excited about where the technology is taking us, as long as we can do it in ways that are cost-effective for our customers, because, ultimately, they decide who wins and loses in the marketplace, right? JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, and that’s a great segue into cost-effectiveness. Mike and I talk about a lot, Mike, on this show the three tenets of sustainability, people, planet, and profits. For those of our listeners who just joined us, we’ve got Mike Robinson on now, the Vice President of Environment, Energy, and Safety at General Motors. We’re going to go into the big question now. How has sustainability really helped General Motors, the great General Motors, become a stronger company with regards to bottom line and efficiencies? Please lay out that for our listeners because everyone’s always excited to hear how it doesn’t cost more to be green; it actually can save you to be green. MICHAEL ROBINSON: I’ll give you two stories on that, John. One, the most fundamental, is that even in a short period of time, we can demonstrate the value to the organization in increased revenue. We’ve taken, through the reductions in water use in our facilities worldwide, reductions in energy, and through the recycling activities. Just in recycling, we’ve demonstrated a $2.5 billion savings. That’s billion with a b savings, which flows right to the bottom line. Again, not only is it the responsible thing to do from a stewardship standpoint, it flows right to the bottom line of the business, and if you want to talk about easy sell in the hardnosed world of manufacturing and engineering, talk about a number like that and people get very excited when you can demonstrate that kind of value. The other thing I’d tell you is even in less obvious cases, you can demonstrate that at least in many cases it’s cost neutral, if not a money maker, to do some pretty extraordinary on the recycling front. We’ve done some pretty extraordinary things because of our experience with recycling. We’ve gotten into some things that people might not find obvious. We got involved, as I think you guys know, with some of the recycling associated with the Gulf oil disaster with the spill last year. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Tell us a little bit about that. That’s a fascinating story. MICHAEL ROBINSON: Well, and I’d like to take credit for the idea, but I will tell you, it’s just another example of ideas sort of coming up through the organization from a lot of the folks we have working on recycling day to day. This is one of those examples where one of our folks who’s got a lot of recycling experience said, “You know, I think through our experience working on recycling oil within the plant, we know how we could probably help these guys instead of sending these oil-soaked booms to a landfill, which is literally where they were going. We got involved and figured out a way, with the great help of our suppliers, to convince the folks that were responsible for these booms that they could be put to better use in one of our recycling programs. We did do that. We literally bought 100+ miles of oil-soaked booms from the Gulf of Mexico, and with our suppliers, turned those into car parts. Basically, the black plastic air dams underneath the hood of the Volt are made with these recycled material, these resins, that instead of using virgin resin that’s never been used before, we were able to take these plastic resins that are inside these booms and constructively use them to turn them into recycled car parts. We were able to do that on a cost-neutral basis. It doesn’t cost us any more than if we were using brand new virgin resins, so it’s just an example of the creativity of the folks. So, we saved 100+ miles of booms going to a landfill that would have taken thousands of years to decompose, and we feel pretty good about that. MIKE BRADY: As well you should, Mike. That’s a living example of what John has coined as urban mining, and that sure sounds like it. Rather than going out and going through the production of brand new virgin material, using what is there. One other thing that I thought was fascinating learning this on your website, too, was you’re so committed at a DNA level of recycling and reusing and repurposing things there within your plant, that you’ve taken paint sludge and turned that into plastic shipping crates to hold some of the Cruze engine parts. MICHAEL ROBINSON: The examples are endless. That’s a great one. We’ve reused packaging materials from some of our plants and reused the packaging material, and turned them into headliner material for some of our products, a basically sound dampening material. It’s all transparent or not even seen by the customer, but it works well, it’s cost-effective, and it’s a great use of recycled material. In the average plant that we have, more than 90% is recycled. In the plants that have achieved zero landfill, we’re more like 96-97% recycled or reused materials. It’s just an incredibly efficient operation. The great part to your point, Mike, is it’s part of the DNA. It’s part of the fabric of the organization at this point. We’re constantly looking for new ideas. We’re constantly asking ourselves what more can we do, but we’ve really reached the point where it’s just standard practice. It doesn’t require any great sales job on my part. It’s actually humbling to see all the ideas that people are able to bubble up in the organization, expecting that somebody is going to listen, which is what you want. I mean, that’s the goal, is to have big creativity, thousands of people, not just a handful that have the title of sustainability people. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mike, kudos to you and the folks at GM. I’m on my iPad right here, and I’m on your website. Mike’s on his laptop here in the studio, and this GM beyond now, it’s more than just building cars and trucks today. It’s just a gorgeous and transparent website with so many great stories here. For our listeners that have their iPads, laptops, or their desktops in front of them, it’s www.generalmotors.posterous.com. It is just a beautiful website, so whoever built it there under your direction, hats off. It is just gorgeous and it’s very inspirational. MICHAEL ROBINSON: Thank you, John, but there’s more we’re going to be doing. We’re going to become, as an organization, increasingly more transparent, and I think do a better job of telling the world what we’re working on, what our goals are, and then being accountable for that. I think a lot of what we’ve done has sort of been done without either seeking or maybe getting a lot of public notice. We’re not doing this for credit, but I really want to make sure we’re constantly moving in that direction of transparency, working with outside groups that maybe have a different perspective than the homegrown point of view might be without that kind of influence. I’ll give you an example of something we did recently that included a lot of outside perspectives that I really think helped us do a better job. Chevrolet wanted to get involved in what we’re going to call the Chevrolet carbon reduction program. This initiative was a Chevrolet investment to say we’ll take a finite amount of money and try to find programs, projects at the community level where we can make an impact, reduce the carbon footprint of various community activities that might be short of cash, unable to do some of the things that we know would make a difference. We started down one path. We’re wise enough to involve a number of stakeholders that were able to give us, and when I say stakeholders, I’m talking about people not affiliated with GM. They had no financial interest in GM, but they were environmental groups, academics, NGOs, that came in and gave us some perspective about how to think about these projects, and I really think led us to a much better program than we might have come up with on our own. We started to announce the projects that were going to start receiving these funds, and we’re really excited about it. It’s going to make a difference in the communities. A lot of the stuff that we’re talking about doing is what I would call low-hanging fruit because either the community center or the school system or the housing development just didn’t have the funds to do the things we know can make a huge difference, whether it’s conservation or even weatherizing. These are all important things. I actually hope that this becomes sort of an idea incubator for us, and we’ve learned for ourselves some things that we might not be doing ourselves at the plant level, but we can adopt ourselves. In any event, it’s just another exciting example of ways that we can get out and do more with the resources we have and make a difference. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mike, unfortunately we’re winding down now to the last 30 or 40 seconds. I want you to just share any last bits that you want, and we’re going to ask you to come back and continue the GM story on another day because it is just amazing. If you’d like to share any last thoughts with our listeners, both in the United States and around the world, as we sign off, we’d love to give the stage to you as we are going to be signing off now. MICHAEL ROBINSON: I appreciate it, John and Mike, I really do. The thing about the company that I hope people will take away from this is that this is a brand new company. We have a long history, but we are absolutely focused on the customer. Everything we do is about how do we get better, how do we make our products better, how do we resonate better with today’s generation of people. I think we’re taking some pretty aggressive steps to do that, and again, I think the Volt is, in and of itself, an important product, but a preview of things to come from this company. I’m really, really excited about it. It’s a great place to be right now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mike, we’re so honored that you came on today. For all our listeners again, one last time, please go to General Motors’ great green part of their website, generalmotors.posterous.com. See what they’re doing beyond now. Mike, again, thank you for coming on our show. General Motors beyond now, please support this iconic and amazing American brand. Mike Robinson, you are a great green leader, and truly living proof that green is good. MICHAEL ROBINSON: Thanks for having me, guys.