GM’s Barra: ‘I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced’

During her opening statement, General Motors chief executive Mary Barra said that she does not know why it took years for the carmaker to announce a safety defect but she that she is committed to finding out. (The Associated Press)

General Motors chief executive Mary T. Barra on Tuesday deflected a barrage of questions on Capitol Hill about the automaker’s failure to fix a deadly ignition-switch flaw, telling lawmakers that she was unaware of the decade-old problem until early this year.

While she repeatedly apologized for a defect that GM has blamed for the deaths of at least 13 motorists, Barra also repeatedly ducked lawmakers’ sometimes testy queries, saying she is awaiting the results of an internal investigation.

A GM lifer who became the company’s top executive in mid-January, Barra took pains to make a distinction between the cost-conscious “old GM” — which, she admitted, missed a series of red flags and may have engineered a coverup — and the post-bankruptcy “new GM,” which Barra said is focused on customer safety.

“I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced,” Barra told a House Energy and Commerce Committee investigative panel. “I can tell you that we will find out.”

In her opening statement, Barra announced that Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who has helped mete out payments to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and to victims of BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, had been hired by GM to “explore and evaluate options in its response to families of accident victims.”

Prior to a House committee hearing with the chief executive of General Motors, lawmakers and families of victims killed in crashes involving GM cars held a news conference. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The move suggests that GM expects to face additional claims on behalf of people killed or injured in the recalled vehicles. Feinberg said Barra has asked him to examine options for compensating victims of the defect, which could include a broad settlement fund.

“Over the next 60 days, we hope to propose some objective claims-resolution approach that meets the needs of the victims, the company and the public interest,” Feinberg said in an interview.

GM has recalled 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and other small vehicles because of the faulty switches. Lawmakers said GM could have fixed the defective switch for as little as 57 cents per vehicle. Still, the automaker waited more than a decade to issue a recall, despite mounting evidence of a problem, including 133 complaints to dealers and numerous legal settlements paid to families of people who perished in related accidents.

Barra’s testimony seemed to do little to mollify lawmakers, many of whom appeared to have scoured the thousands of pages of documents the company submitted to congressional investigators. One after another, they grilled her about questionable company decisions, such as installing switches that did not meet GM’s technical specifications and quietly approving a new switch design in 2006 without assigning a new part number or initiating a recall.

“Ms. Barra, I know this isn’t the most enjoyable situation for you. But we’re in a situation where we don’t trust the company right now,” said Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.).

The panel also heard from David Friedman, the acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also failed for years to recognize the problem. Friedman pointed the finger at GM for not providing regulators with timely information that could have led federal regulators to order a recall.

“Our ability to find defects also requires automakers to act in good faith and on time,” Friedman said.

A history of GM’s ignition problems

Asked by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) whether GM had acted in good faith, Friedman said NHTSA has opened an investigation “to answer that exact question. And if we find they were not, we will hold them accountable.”

But lawmakers were also interested in NHTSA’s failures, demanding to know why the agency did not take action to determine why air bags in the Cobalt failed to deploy in a series of accidents — and to demand that GM remedy the problem.

Friedman defended the agency, saying it had compared the Cobalt’s track record with other vehicles and found no consistent trend. “When it came to [air bag] non-deployments, Cobalt was not an outlier,” he said.

Moreover, NHTSA investigators looking into specific crashes were not convinced that the air bags failed to deploy because of a faulty ignition switch. At the time, Friedman said, the idea that the switch could be jostled, flip to the “accessory” position and disable power steering, brakes and critical electronics, including air bags, was “one theory.”

“But in the crashes we looked at, investigators thought it was more likely that the air bag did not deploy because of the circumstances of the crash,” Friedman said.

“I know it looks like it should have been clear,” he added. “But it’s clear now in part because we have that clear connection from GM.”

The hearing took place in a room packed with observers, including the family members of people who died in the recalled vehicles. Photos of about a dozen crash victims — smiling young women, a Marine in his dress blues — were propped on a ledge at the back of the room.

Barra, who held a tearful meeting Monday night in GM’s Washington offices with nearly two dozen family members of crash victims, expressed her “sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall . . . especially to the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.”

She was less forthcoming about other matters. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), the chairman of the subcommittee conducting the hearing, noted that GM had missed evidence of the defect for more than a decade. Citing documents submitted by GM, Murphy listed nearly a dozen specific instances where he said GM — or federal regulators — should have taken action.

“Why didn’t GM and NHTSA put the pieces together for 10 years? Why didn’t anyone ask the critically important questions?” Murphy said. “To borrow a phrase, what we have here is a failure to communicate — and the results are deadly.”

Barra said she found “very disturbing” a statement made by a GM official who in 2005 rejected a proposed fix for the flawed switch because it was not cost-
effective.

“That is not how we do business at today’s GM,” she said.

Throughout nearly two hours of testimony, Barra remained even-tempered and contrite. But she was also tight-lipped and, at times, evasive.

Asked how often the automaker uses parts that do not match its specifications, Barra said the company always aims to use parts that are safe and reliable. Parts that do not meet technical requirements, she said, are not necessarily defective.

“What you just answered is gobbledygook,” shot back Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.).

Later, after Barra had left the hearing room and been replaced at the witness table by Friedman, Barton summed up lawmakers’ reaction to her performance.

“I think it’s obvious,” he said, “that GM has some real questions that they’ve not done a very good job answering today.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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