GM's Barra Vows Transparency In Recall Probe

Both General Motors and the federal agency that oversees its compliance with safety standards are under fire for who said what to whom — and when, precisely — regarding a faulty ignition switch in certain discontinued models that has reportedly led to airbags being disabled under some conditions.  

“Thirteen deaths have been linked to the problem switch, which was used in some Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR, Pontiac G5 and Solstice, Saturn Ion and Sky models,” dating back to the launch of the Cobalt in 2004, Jeff Bennett reports in the Wall Street Journal. “GM has said a jarring of the ignition key or too much weight on a key ring attached to the ignition key can cause the switch to turn off, disabling power to the air bags.”

The switch was not replaced until the 2007 model year; the recall took nearly a decade.       

“In an unusual move, General Motors CEO Mary Barra says she's personally directing the recall of 1.37 million GM cars,” writes USA Today’s James R. Healy, pointing out that “GM president Dan Ammann came close to directly blaming the ‘old’ GM,” in telling Automotive News at the Geneva Motor Show: ‘This is a new leadership team. We're aiming to do things in the right way."

"We're doing everything we can to work with our customers and our dealers to get everything as straight as we can," Ammann told Automotive News Mike Colias and Nick Bunkley.

That includes an internal investigation for which it has hired an outside law firm that is questioning employees, WSJ’s Bennett reports. 

“GM had maintained before the recall that the cars involved were safe because they can be steered and stopped, even when the key slips out of ‘run,’ turns off the engine and eliminates power assist to the steering and brakes and disables some safety systems,” write James R. Healey and Greg Gardner in the Detroit Free-Press. “GM also has noted that in many of the crashes now linked to the problem that lack of seatbelt use and alcohol were factors.”

In a document that in parts seems a Pythonesque parody of  legalese — “The singular includes the plural; the plural includes the singular. The masculine includes the feminine and neuter genders; the neuter gender includes the masculine and feminine genders” — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a special order to GM with 107 specific questions it wants answered. 

One in particular — No. 27 — that is drawing a lot of attention in the 27-page document is a statement by GM North America president Alan Batey in a press release Feb. 25 about the expansion of the recall. In it, he admitted, “the chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been.”

The NHTSA want to know exactly how it “was not as robust” as well “its plans (if any) to change its process.” 

“NHTSA also asked GM to name all employees or engineers involved in the ignition switch production whether they worked for GM or part supplier Delphi Automotive, which made the ignition switches,” Bennett reports.

“The company is fully cooperating with NHTSA’s probe and welcomes ‘the opportunity to help the agency have a full understanding of the facts,’ a GM spokesman, Alan Adler, said in an e-mailed statement today,” reports Bloomberg’s Jeff Plungis.

Indeed, General Motors appears to be trying to appear to be as transparent as possible in is current investigation of its past investigation. 

In a letter to employees posted on the GM website Tuesday, CEO Barra wrote that the inquiry “has led some to ask if the recall of these out-of-production vehicles might affect our company’s reputation or sales of our current models.” 

Her response is “our company’s reputation won’t be determined by the recall itself, but by how we address the problem going forward.”

Indeed, Jeremy Robinson-Leon, COO at crisis public relations firm Group Gordon, tells Healey that Barra is “staking her reputation on handling this properly.”

“Our process for determining whether and when to recall a vehicle is decided by experienced technical experts. They do their work independent of managers with responsibilities for other aspects of the business, so that their decisions are made solely on technical facts and engineering analysis,” Barra wrote in her email. “When this was brought to my team a few weeks ago, we acted without hesitation to go well beyond the decision by the technical experts.”

The NHTSA is facing scrutiny itself.

“The safety agency has come under mounting pressure over its own failure to act on complaints about the recalled GM cars,” Christopher Jensen reports in the New York Times. “Twice, it has taken an in-depth look at fatal crashes, but has never begun a broader investigation.”

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) last month “sent a letter to the agency saying that significant improvements were needed in the way it gathers information about potential defects,’ Jensen writes, but the agency replied that the data it had did not “warrant … opening a formal investigation.”

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