WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress on Tuesday pressed General Motors CEO Mary Barra on why apparently glaring signals over the years failed to prompt an earlier recall of potentially deadly cars.
That recall of 2.5 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and similar vehicles worldwide finally came in the last two months after GM linked a defect in ignition switches dating back to models more than a decade old to air bags not deploying in the event of a crash. GM has linked 13 deaths to the defect.
"it came to light on my watch, so I am responsible for it," Barra, who has been on the job less than three months, told the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. "Today's GM will do the right thing."
She added that "GM has civil responsibilities and legal responsibilities and we are thinking through how to best balance them."
Barra acknowledged during questioning that the company in the past had been immersed in a "cost culture," but said GM was moving to a "customer culture."
Some members of the committee did express empathy for Barra. Said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.: "I know you're taking this job at an inauspicious time. You're trying to clean up the mess your predecessors left for you."
Before Barra testified, Rep. Michael Burgess was among committee members expressing bewilderment that the problem dragged on for so long before the recall was authorized.
"With over 200,000 documents that have been produced, lack of information was not the problem. Instead, it is this committee's duty to figure out why the data was there but the analysis was egregiously off the mark," said Burgess, R-Texas. "We need to get to the bottom of this—and fast. The stakes are too high."
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said that GM documents show the ignition switch could have been fixed as cheaply as 57 cents per vehicle.
Awaiting the hot seat was David Friedman, acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing, he said that GM could have and should have provided NHTSA with relevant data far earlier that could have set in motion a recall before now.
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"(It) would have better informed the agency's prior reviews of air bag non-deployment in GM vehicles and likely would have changed NHTSA's approach," Friedman said in written testimony. His agency is under fire for not following through with proposed investigations in 2007 and 2010.
The exposure for GM -- its resurgent post-bankruptcy reputation and profitability at risk -- and for Barra is great. Lawyers are beginning to line up to file class actions and liability suits, testing whether GM's bankruptcy shield from pre-2009 claims will hold.
Barra, In her written testimon released Monday, promised full transparency and described GM's efforts to get at the truth but had little to offer by way of explanation.
"More than a decade ago, GM embarked on a small car program," she said in the testimony. "Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program, but I can tell you that we will find out."
Barra's defense brought little comfort to families of some crash victims, who held a news conference this morning outside the Capitol in advance of the House subcommittee hearing, joined by several members of Congress.
"Corporate executives made a decision that fighting the problem was cheaper and easier than fixing the problem," said Laura Christian, whose daughter died in a 2005 crash.
In recent days, concerns that GM and NHTSA missed warnings that should have prompted an earlier recall have grown. House committee staff, meeting with officials of Delphi, the Troy-based company that produced the ignition switches, said suppliers told them in a briefing that GM accepted the part in 2002 even though it did not meet GM's own specifications.
NHTSA, despite receiving hundreds of complaints and considering a possible pattern of air bag non-deployment in 2007, failed to act as well, though in his prepared testimony Friedman said the cars were not "overrepresented" among other models in terms of air bag problems and that the data "did not indicate a safety defect or defect trend that would warrant .. a formal investigation."
The fault that triggered the recall allows the ignition switch to slip unexpectedly from the normal "run" position into "accessory." That shuts off the engine and kills power to a number of systems, usually including airbags.
GM's own chronology says the problem first was noticed at GM in 2001.The recall has emerged in three stages:
• Feb. 7, GM recalled 778,562 of its 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5s, 619,122 in the U.S. to replace the switches.
• Feb. 25, it expanded that by another 842,103, to include 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, 2006-2007 Chevy HHR, 2006 Pontiac Solstice, 2007 Saturn Sky. Of those, 748,024 are U.S.-market vehicles.
• March 28, it again expanded the universe of recalled cars, this time by 873,288 U.S. models, to include newer versions of the already recalled vehicles that had the redesigned – safer – switches from the factory, but might have gotten a faulty switch during repairs. Only about 5,000 of those are likely to have gotten a bad switch, but GM can't tell which 5,000 because some old and new switches have the same part number.
According to a timeline the automaker has filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in connection with the recall, GM first noted a problem with the ignition switch moving out of "run" in 2001, during development of the 2003 Saturn Ion.
An unidentified mechanic reported the problem in 2003 on a customer's car. And in 2004 a GM engineer finalizing the new 2005 Chevy Cobalt experienced the switch problem.
A new switch design was approved in 2006, the timeline says, but without a new part number. If that was done to fix a safety problem, but federal safety officials weren't told, it could be a violation of federal law. GM did not recall the cars in 2006 to install the redesigned part.
On March 18, in her first interview since taking over as CEO in January, Barra acknowledged, "Clearly, this took too long." Pledging to ensure there's never a repeat, Barra said, "We will fix our process."
She hired a global safety chief with access to her and other top executives, a first for GM and rare in the car business. And the automaker began to accelerate its own product and safety reviews.
GM's recalls in the first three months of the year haven't been limited to the ignition switches. On Monday, it recalled 1.5 million more vehicles for a power steering defect, bringing the worldwide total to 7 million vehicles.