There was certainly no “smoking gun” or revelatory moments to explain why it took General Motors and federal regulators a decade to figure out that an ignition key defect and related airbag problem in Chevrolet Cobalts and other compacts were killing people.
After more than four hours of testimony by General Motors CEO Mary T. Barra and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration chief David J. Friedman Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers were still scratching their heads as they attempted to understand why the company worked so hard to keep the design problem secret and why federal regulators missed so many clues.
“Why didn’t GM and NHTSA put the pieces together for ten years?” asked Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) in summing up the questions that many posed throughout the day. “Why didn’t anyone ask the critically important questions?”
Last month, GM began a recall of nearly 2.6 million cars and linked the defect to at least 13 deaths and scores of accidents and complaints. In many cases, the ignition switch cut off after being jostled, the steering and break system froze up and the airbags failed to deploy after a car crash. Although it will be months or years before congressional and federal investigators sort out the details of this recall scandal, company officials and NHTSA officials are fighting to salvage their highly bruised reputations and get out in front of the controversy.
If the performances by Barra and Friedman and the general atmospherics in the hearing room are any barometer, then NHTSA may have gained the upper hand. Barra and Friedman made an interesting contrast – one a somewhat flustered and defensive corporate executive who was fuzzy on details, and the other a self-confident and precise bureaucrat eager to shift blame to General Motors whenever given the opportunity.
Barra, a 33-year veteran of GM who only recently assumed the reins of the auto manufacturing giant, was apologetic, contrite and earnest in her commitment to getting to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the long-delayed recalls and repairing the millions of defective cars being recalled to protect consumers. With the families of the victims and their lawyers bringing class action lawsuits, Barra announced during her testimony that Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer specializing in structuring compensation packages for victims of catastrophes, including 911 and the BP oil spill, will be consulting for GM.
“GM has civil and legal responsibilities,” she said. “We are thinking through exactly what those responsibilities are.”
Barra’s performance before the committee and TV cameras provided little insight into GM’s performance over the past decade and efforts to cover up the extent of the ignition design problem.
"Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that small-car program, but I can tell you that we will find out,” she said. "When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators and with our customers."
Barra repeatedly fended off questions by saying she was awaiting the outcome of an internal investigation being led by a former U.S. attorney, Anton Valukas.
Although she once headed the global engineering division, Barra could not speak with any certainty about the decision-making when GM first approved a flawed ignition switch design back in 2002. Nor did she know much about a March 2005 decision against redesigning the ignition switch because it wasn’t deemed a sound business practice by engineers. She was also in the dark about GM’s decision to quietly change the ignition switch design in 2007 without informing consumers or regulators about the significant development.
When asked by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) who at GM or parts manufacturer Delphi had made the decision to disguise the change in the ignition switch by keeping the old serial number on the new part, Barra said, “I want to know that as much as you do.”
As her testimony wound down, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) couldn’t resist asking the $64,000 question again: “Why didn’t your team of engineers connect the dots and figure out when the ignition slipped into that auxillary position [that] the airbags won’t function properly?"
Barra replied weakly, “Congressman, those are the questions I want to answer, and as I said, it has taken way too long. And we will learn from this and we will make changes and we will hold people accountable.”
By the time Friedman took the witness chair in late afternoon, much of the tension had gone out of the room and Friedman received practically deferential treatment. Murphy, the chair of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, solicitously noted that Friedman had only been with NHTSA for a brief period, and urged him to call on his aides sitting behind him to help answer any difficult questions.
Friedman, who sports a goatee, worked for 12 years at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as a senior engineer, research director, and finally as the deputy director of the clean vehicles program co-managing an interdisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, advocates, and outreach specialists. He wasted no time reaching out to some of the families of car crash victims who had spent the day meeting with the press and holding events to highlight the recall controversy.
“To begin, I would like to say that on behalf of everyone at NHTSA, we are deeply saddened by the lives lost in crashes involving the General Motors ignition switch defect,” he opened. “Safety is NHSTA’s top priority, and our employees go to work every day trying to prevent tragedies just like these.”
“In the case of the recently recalled General Motors vehicles, we are first focused on insuring that General Motors identifies all vehicles with a defective ignition switch, fixes the vehicles quickly and is doing all it can to inform consumers on how to keep themselves safe.”
NHTSA is part of the overall investigation of GM’s misconduct, even though it is under congressional scrutiny as well by Congress. Friedman vowed to hold GM accountable if it failed to meet its legal responsibilities to report and address this defect. “If it failed to do so, we will hold General Motors accountable, as we have in other cases over the last five years which have led to record fines.”
Friedman acknowledged shortcomings in his agency, but insisted that NHTSA would have done more if it had been fully advised about the extent of the problem. “When data available to NHTSA reveals a basis to investigate a potential risk to motor vehicle safety the agency takes decisive action,” Friedman said. “Had this information been available earlier, it would have likely changed NHTSA’s approach to this issue.”
Friedman hardly got through his testimony unscathed. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI), the onetime powerhouse on the committee and a champion of the auto industry, pressed Friedman on why his agency failed to see the warning signs and trends back in 2007.
“Mr. Chairman, I’m troubled here,” Dingell concluded. “It appears that we have a flaw in NHTSA’s decision-making process which is related to defects and their inquiries into defects.”
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