The automotive industry is a behemoth. Last year (2015), sales of new vehicles around the world reached $1.7 billion according to industry reports. In the United States, automotive manufacturing now employs more than seven million people, contributes $205 billion to state and federal tax revenue. Automotive companies have invested nearly $50 billion into U.S. factories and manufacturing facilities since 2010.
All this is according to The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which advocates for promoting and growing the automotive sector in the U.S. Clearly the automotive industry remains an integral part of the global economy. Accordingly, it’s run by some very powerful people. Here is a list of the 10 most powerful people in the automotive business today.
10. Sebastian Thrun
Who is Sebastian Thrun, you ask? Well, he is the Director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University in California. What does that have to do with cars, you wonder? Well, Thrun and his Artificial Intelligence Lab have helped to develop Google’s driverless car. The first completely autonomous vehicle in the world. Pretty impressive.
A professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford University, Thrun runs the A.I. Lab on campus. He used his smarts to develop and build “Stanley,” a driverless car for Google that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. In fact, that model is now on display at the Smithsonian. A group of engineers at Google are still working to perfect driverless cars and make them functional for everyday driving. But they would be nowhere without Thrun and his lab’s early work.
9. Barack Obama
At first glance, this may seem like a bit of a head scratcher. However, the automotive industry has, to a degree, defined the presidency of Barack Obama. The first thing the U.S. President did when he took office in 2009 was to approve a $80 billion bailout of the automotive industry. Not only did the bailout save more than a million American jobs, it also helped to salvage the global automotive industry and saved many millions more jobs in Europe and Asia.
While Obama received a lot of criticism, at the time, for bailing out the private sector, the move was necessary and right. If that weren’t enough, over the eight years he’s been president, Obama has also approved $4 billion of funding into autonomous car research. When the day comes, in the not too distant future, when we’re all commuting in driverless cars, we’ll have Obama to thank.
8. Li Shufu
Li Shufu is a wheeler dealer in China. He is alternately described as an industrialist, entrepreneur, automotive executive, and political confident. What we do know for sure is that the Chinese-born Shufu is Chairman of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. Ltd., which is an automotive manufacturing company that makes cars, taxis, motorcycles, engines, and transmissions. It also owns the Volvo automotive brand and related products, and sells taxis under the “London Taxi” brand.
However, Shufu is not on this list because he makes and sells Volvos. He’s on this list because he is the most powerful automotive executive in China — soon to be the world’s biggest and most lucrative market for car sales. We can only guess how he goes about greasing the wheels in China, but he is majorly successful. Shufu is helping to open up automotive trade between China and the rest of the world, which is good for the entire industry.
7. Sergio Marchionne
As the head honcho at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and keeper of the Ferrari brand of cars, Sergio Marchionne is a pillar of Europe’s automotive industry. He is currently struggling to right that ship. Lagging sales around the world and red ink have placed Fiat Chrysler on the brink in recent years, and Marchionne was brought in to be the savior for the company.
He shook up the company’s executive ranks, overhauled their research and development focus, and switched production away from sedans and towards in demand SUVs. He especially focused on the Jeep brand. The efforts appear to be paying off, as Fiat Chrysler reported adjusted earnings before interest and taxes of $1.56 billion in early 2016 – double the earnings from a year ago. Still, Fiat Chrysler has more than $5 billion of debt and is actively seeking a partner to merge with. They were most recently courting General Motors. Time will tell if Fiat Chrysler can truly survive. In Europe though, all eyes in the automotive industry remain on Marchionne.
6. Justice Charles Breyer
Justice Charles Breyer is a judge who sits on the U.S. District Court. He’s also the man who is presiding over the absolute debacle that is the Volkswagen emissions scandal. You know, the scandal where VW rigged software in their diesel vehicles so they could pass vehicle emissions tests while still spewing pollutants. Yeah, that’s been a bit of a mess, what with the largest automotive recall in history and hundreds of class action lawsuits.
What makes Judge Breyer powerful is not just that he will ultimately decided how much VW pays to settle the many, many lawsuits it is facing. It’s that Judge Breyer is ensuring that the German carmaker fully complies with environmental laws, and his rulings will likely have far reaching influence on future cases involving vehicle emissions. It will also impact future environmental laws and regulations, not to mention the development of future green technology. For these reasons, Judge Breyer is a very important guy.
5. Jason Castriota
Jason Castriota is an American designer who is influencing high end luxury cars and racing vehicles around the world. Part of a small design firm situated in New York City called Skylabs, Castriota has built a reputation as one of the stars in the world of automotive design. He has already created cars that are considered masterpieces, such as the Ferrari P 4/5, the Maserati GranTurismo, and the SCC Tuatara.
These cars alone would be enough to base an entire career on, but Castriota is still going strong. He has also designed the Bertone Mantide and Saab Phoenix. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess, but he is a much sought after designer whose creations are influencing automotive manufacturers around the globe.
4. Bernie Ecclestone
Known in his native Britain simply as “F1 Supremo,” Bernie Ecclestone is the Chairman of Formula One Group. He owns and controls everything related to the world’s most popular car racing circuit and events – including the global television rights. This not only means that Ecclestone is insanely wealthy (with a net worth estimated at $4 billion), but he is also very influential in the automotive industry.
He is regularly called upon to give his opinion on everything from automotive advertising to the design of transmissions. He is also a master negotiator and always seems to wrangle great deals for himself and the Formula One Group, no matter who is on the other side of the table. Ecclestone is hell-bent on continuing to grow the influence and importance of F1 racing around the world.
3. Mary Barra
As Chief Executive Officer of General Motors Corp., Mary Barra is arguably the most powerful woman in the automotive industry. While no longer the world’s largest automaker, General Motors is still a huge company that boasts 17 vehicle brands and manufacturing sites in 37 countries. GM also remains at the forefront of green technology and electric vehicles, notably with the Chevy Bolt, which is considered by automotive analysts to be a competitor to the widely touted Tesla Model 3.
There is growing speculation that GM, which has ample cash reserves, will establish a hydrogen or electric-charging facility to meet its future needs. Barra is increasingly viewed as the visionary behind General Motors as it forays into the automotive future.
2. Mark Fields
Perhaps the only automotive executive in Detroit who is more powerful than Mary Barra is Ford Motor Company Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields. A company man who rose through the ranks at Ford over a 26-year career at the automaker, Fields has held the top post since 2014. He took over after Ford had made it through the worst of the 2008 recession and government bailout backlash, both of which pummeled Ford’s stock price.
Today, Ford’s stock is on the rise again thanks to popular vehicle offerings such as the Ford Focus RS, Shelby GT350R, and the latest model of the Ford GT. There’s also the ever reliable Ford F-150 truck to help drive sales and the company’s bottom line. Today, Fields has his sights fixed on building valuable technology partnerships and developing self-driving cars that appear to be the future of the industry.
1. Elon Musk
As the CEO of Tesla Motors and Space X, Elon Musk has positioned himself as a bit of a folk hero in the automotive industry. The visionary founder of PayPal is today focused on developing an affordable electric vehicle for the masses that can travel far distances on a single battery charge.
Earlier this year, he unveiled the Tesla Model 3, an electric car that promises to retail for about $35,000, which would make it attractive to middle class consumers. The Model 3 is set to go into production and be available to buy in late 2017. Will it be able to deliver on Musk’s lofty promises? With Tesla, Musk has attempted to corner the market on electric cars. For that he earns top marks and the number one place on this list.