Mary Barra, just two months on the job as General Motors Co.’s CEO, will testify before a congressional subcommittee April 1 about a widening safety recall that threatens to damage the automaker’s resurgent reputation, following its emergence from bankruptcy.
Late Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which March 10 announced it would investigate GM’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles because of an ignition-switch defect that may affect airbag deployment, announced Barra’s appearance. The committee said it wants to know if “this tragedy could have been prevented, and what can be done to ensure the loss of life” doesn’t happen again.
GM has linked the defect to 12 deaths and 31 crashes in 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2003-07 Saturn Ions and several other pre-2008 models with the same ignition switch. The House committee is investigating why the recall happened just this year when indications of a problem – and hundreds of consumer complaints – stretched back to 2003.
The acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Friedman, also is expected to testify before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee about why federal regulators didn’t move more quickly to contain the apparent problem with ignition switches. NHTSA has launched its own investigation, too.
“We look forward to hearing from both Mary Barra and Administrator Friedman. Their testimony is critical to understanding what the company and NHTSA knew about the safety problems, when they knew it, and what was done about it,” said committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican.
“The problems originated long before Barra and Friedman took the helms of their respective organizations,” Upton added, “but their actions and input now, as our investigation proceeds, will be essential to getting answers about what went wrong.”
The committee last week asked GM and NHTSA for detailed documentation, due Tuesday, about the recall and discussions between both about safety issues. As long as ago as 2007, NHTSA regulators told GM representatives about a potential problem; GM records indicate it was receiving complaints about switches even before that, and, as early as 2001, knew about ignition switch issues.
GM’s records indicated it had long known that ignition switches in early Cobalts and Ions could be jostled inadvertently out of the “run” position into “accessory,” an issue that could result in stalls. But the company apparently did not consider that enough of a safety issue to warrant a recall.
But as investigations into the problem came together last year, the company – with investigators initially unaware an engineer had signed off on changes to the switch in 2006 that apparently solved the issue in later model-year cars – concluded the loss of power could affect air bag deployment.
Already, class-action lawsuits are being drawn up in response to what critics say is an issue GM and NHTSA could have and should have dealt with in the earlier model-year vehicles a decade ago.
GM pledged its cooperation with the House investigation, with spokesman Greg Martin saying Barra “welcomes the opportunity to participate in the hearing as part of GM’s effort to cooperate with Congress and other authorities.”
A Senate committee also is planning to hold a hearing on the recall, and the Justice Department reportedly is looking into it, too.
Barra, who has ordered an “unvarnished” internal report and has personally taken control of the recall response, told reporters Tuesday she would “fix our process.”
“My message will be that we are focused on the customer; we are doing everything we can to support the customer, to get their vehicles fixed; that I am very sorry for the loss of life that has occurred; and we will take every step we can to make sure this never happens again,” Barra said.