WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama tied his 2012 reelection campaign to the slogan, “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.” The embattled car company may be alive, but at least 13 people who drove its cars are not, due to faulty ignition switches GM failed to disclose for more than a decade.
Mary Barra, GM’s new CEO, traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to answer tough questions from lawmakers during an oversight subcommittee hearing in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Barra seemed to take full responsibility in her opening statement, even going so far as to say, “I am deeply sorry,” to families of the victims who were in attendance. But when faced with direct questions, Barra, who took over as CEO in January, mostly avoided giving specific answers. She repeatedly claimed to not have information, citing her recent appointment—although she’s a career GM employee—and the ongoing investigation dozens of times.
“That’s part of our investigation. I want to know that as much as you,” Barra said in response to a question from Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the full committee, who became visibly exasperated by Barra’s evasive answers.
“What you just answered is gobbledy gook,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who grilled Barra on why GM used the faulty part knowing that it did not meet the company’s specifications. “There’s no reason to have specifications if you don’t enforce them.” Barra said there is a difference between a part being defective and not meeting GM specifications.
The faulty switches involved a spring that didn’t have enough torque to keep the ignition key from slipping into accessory mode. Running over a pot hole, a driver’s knee brushing the key, or even a heavy key chain could cause the car to shut off, disabling power steering, power brakes, and airbags.
In February, GM issued a recall of 1.62 million cars built between 2003 and 2007, including the Chevy Cobalt and HHR, the Pontiac G5 and Solstice, and the Saturn Ion and Sky. On Friday, the automaker recalled almost 1 million additional vehicles, covering the remaining model years of the same six vehicles. Counting other recently discovered safety issues, GM has recalled more than 6 million vehicles since February.
In her opening testimony, Barra announced that GM has retained the services of crisis attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who helped manage victim funds following the Virginia Tech shooting, the BP oil spill, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Barra said the two sides will meet for the first time on Friday, but when pressed on whether the company is considering victim compensation, she declined to identify any specific objectives.
The full scope of the problem still isn’t known: The current incident count only includes front-impact collisions, but several lawmakers raised the possibility that other accidents are connected, including one woman who died the day after she took her car in to the dealership for spontaneously shutting off. He said the technicians only cleaned the fuel line.
“I think we’re going to find a significant number of additional injuries or deaths,” Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., told me after Barra’s testimony. “Even one is too many. … People expect better from a company like GM.”
At Harper’s request, Barra said she would supply the committee with the other accidents GM deemed unrelated to the ignition switch problem. At least 130 owners filed warranty claims to repair switches, and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., read from an internal email at Delphi Automotive—the part manufacturer—talking about how the “Cobalt is blowing up in their face” with complaints. Murphy said the committee has requested the full Delphi email chain regarding the problem.
GM knew as far back as 2001 that the switches did not meet its specifications, but when Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., asked Barra if her company takes responsibility for what happened, the executive declined to agree, talking instead about GM’s new customer and safety culture. She said cost is no longer a factor when considering safety concerns with GM vehicles.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D- N.Y., pressed Barra to commit to releasing the full investigation report to the public upon its completion, but Barra said only that GM would disseminate “appropriate” information when it’s available.