If the National Highway Transportation Safety Board means to intimidate General Motors, it may have to up its game just a bit. In a letter to GM sent yesterday, the agency complained that the giant automaker has yet to fully respond to requests for information about ignition switch problems implicated in the deaths of more than a dozen motorists.
As a result, GM is now facing penalties of…wait for it…$7,000 per day for each day it fails to fully comply with NHTSA’s requests. It brings to mind the super villain from the Austin Powers movies who wakes from 30 years of suspended animation to hatch plans to extort ONE MILLION DOLLARS from world government in exchange for not blowing up the planet.
Attention, NHTSA: General Motors has a market capitalization of $54 billion. CEO Mary Barra earns about $7,000 per hour. The fine will have no more impact on GM than a flea bite has on an elephant.
The letter was released four days after GM missed an April 4 deadline to reply to NHTSA’s questions about the timing of the recall, and about GM’s internal actions with regard to the ignition switch problem, including a redesign of the part.
In NHTSA’s defense, the $7,000 figure is actually the maximum fine allowed under the law, but the point is less the dollar amount than the fact that the agency’s public release of the letter comes at a time when it is under increasing scrutiny for its own role in the long-delayed recall.
The ignition switch problem, which affected millions of GM vehicles, was known at GM for several years in advance of the recalls that were announced last month, and NHTSA’s information request involves data from the company that would indicate just how much was known about the problem and whether steps were taken to address it or to cover it up.
What is clear from testimony delivered by both Barra and acting NHTSA director David Friedman last week is that the government agency in charge of keeping the highways safe and automakers honest, had an awful lot of information on the failed ignition switch years ago, and did not open a formal investigation into the problem.
NHTSA has made it obvious that it intends to point the finger squarely at GM for the poor response to the ignition switch problems, but it is far from clear that its own role in the delayed recall will be obscured by publicly attacking the automaker.
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