This afternoon, two people who inherited the crud-storm that is GM’s ongoing, massive ignition-related recall sat before lawmakers in Congress and tried to both defend their respective organizations while admitting that mistakes were made, resulting in at least 13 deaths.
GM CEO Mary Barra, who was officially elevated to that position shortly before the recall began, and NHTSA’s Acting Administrator David Friedman appeared separately before the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation on Monday to answer questions about why the carmaker waited so long to recall the vehicles in spite of knowing about the defect since before the first problematic car ever hit the sales lot, and why NHTSA twice opted against properly investigating the defect.
“As soon as l learned about the problem, we acted without hesitation,” said Barra in her prepared remarks. “We told the world we had a problem that needed to be fixed. We did so because whatever mistakes were made in the past, we will not shirk from our responsibilities now and in the future.”
Barra said she is “deeply sorry” to those who have been injured by the defect and to the families and survivors of those who died as a result of the decade-long wait to issue the recall.
The committee’s investigation turned up evidence that GM chose to not fix the problem when it first learned of accidents and complaints because it could not make an “acceptable business case,” leading Pennsylvania Congressman Tim Murphy to ask Barra how GM balances cost and safety.
“We don’t,” Barra responded. “Today, if there is a safety issue, we take action. We’ve moved from a cost culture to a customer culture.”
Which probably explains why, on the eve of the hearing, GM issued three separate, new recalls for another 2 million cars and trucks. Better to get that out of the way now than wait.
Even though Barra had been Vice President of Global Manufacturing Engineering at GM as far back as 2008, she was unable to answer many questions from lawmakers about why the carkmaker made decisions like changing its mind on a change to the key slot, or why — even after the supplier of the switch fixed the defect and began providing better switches to GM — the part number was not changed, leading some dealers to possibly replace good switches with defective ones.
Illinois representative Jan Schakowsky asked whether GM would use its 2009 bankruptcy to avoid liability for accidents that happened before its reorganization.
“We understand we have civic responsibilities as well as legal responsibilities,” Barra said, claiming that no senior members of GM staff were aware of the defect when it agreed to the bankruptcy terms.
Barra admitted that “This incident took way too long. It’s not acceptable. We will continue to make process changes and people changes.”
The subcommittee then put Friedman directly in their sights, pressing him on why NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation twice opted to not open a proper investigation into the matter.
NHTSA did investigate at least two crashes involving 2005 Chevy Cobalts in which the air bags did not deploy because the ignition ended up in the off position. Texas Congressman Michael Burgess asked why NHTSA didn’t do anything, given what he views as an obvious problem.
Friedman seemed to take issue that characterization, claiming that air bag mis-deployment is not terribly uncommon and that there are hundreds of cases a year of people injured or killed by air bags that go off when they shouldn’t.
Additionally, Friedman told Burgess that “air bags are designed, even in some of the most difficult crashes, to not go off” because doing so could result in more damage to the driver or passenger.
Another Texas Congressman, Joe Barton, asked “What level of accidents or death… triggers a more-than-normal NHTSA review?”
“Each case ends up being different,” hedged Friedman, saying that in an ideal world the carmakers would fix these issues right away.
“We need to reconsider how do we deal with something that is considered a remote explanation?” admitted Friedman. “Should we change the way we follow up with the car company?”
Friedman also said that he wished more consumers would reach out to NHTSA regarding their safety complaints, rather than the agency having to rely on reports from the carmakers and other sources.
You can watch the whole thing in the video below: