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GM's Barra 'apologises' for 13 deaths

2014-04-02 08:47

DEEPLY SORRY: GM CEO Mary Barra apologises to family members of 13 victims who died in crashes due to a faulty ignition switch in various GM cars. Image: AFP


WASHINGTON DC, Washington – General Motors is under fire for not recalling Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other models over the past decade, despite its evidence that defects were posing a major hazard.

GM chief executive Mary Barra said the automaker has acknowledged the problem, launched an exhaustive review to determine "what and who is responsible" and pledged a shift from a "cost culture" to a focus on safety and quality.


She told a House investigations panel in Washington: "Today's GM will do the right thing. That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall. I am deeply sorry."

Barra said she met privately Tuesday with crash victim relatives, some of whom watched her testify.

Analysts have already speculated that the trouble could cost the company billionsof rands in penalties and damages, on top of huge recall costs.

The fix for a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 traffic deaths would have cost the equivalent of R6 ($0.67), members of Congress said as they demanded answers from GM’s newly-appointed chief executive  on why the automaker took 10 years to recall cars with the defect.

At a hearing before a House subcommittee, Barra acknowledged under often testy questioning that the company took too long to act. She promised changes at GM that would prevent such a lapse from happening again.

Barra, who became CEO in January 2014 and found herself thrust into one of the biggest product safety crises Detroit has seen yet, said: "If there's a safety issue, we're going to make the right change and accept that.”

She admitted that she didn't know why it took years for the dangerous defect to be announced. She deflected many questions about what went wrong, saying an internal investigation is under way.

The faulty switch, which can cause the engine to cut off in traffic, disabling the power steering, power brakes and air bags and making it difficult to control the vehicle. The automaker said new switches should be available starting April 7.

GM's documentation shows it was first aware of a problem in 2001 when the cars involved were in pre-production.

Barra struggled at times to answer lawmakers' pointed questions, particularly about why GM used the switch when it knew the part didn't meet its own specifications.


When she tried to draw a distinction between parts that didn't meet specifications and those that were defective and dangerous, Representive Joe Barton shot back: "What you just answered is gobbledygook."

Barra also announced that GM has hired Kenneth Feinberg, who handled the fund for the victims of Septeber 11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill, to explore ways to compensate victims of crashes in GM cars.

Barra stopped short of saying GM would establish such a fund.

Some of the questioners appeared surprised that Barra hadn't reviewed the thousands of documents that GM had submitted to the committee and that she was unaware of some decision-making processes at the company.

Diana DeGette held up a switch for one of the cars and said a small spring inside it failed to provide enough force, causing engines to turn off when they went over a bump.

DeGette showed how easy it was for a light set of car keys to move the ignition out of the "run" position.

GM has said that in 2005 engineers proposed solutions to the switch problem, but the automaker concluded that none represented "an acceptable business case."


DeGette said: "Documents provided by GM show that this unacceptable cost increase was only 57 cents."

The R6 cost of the replacement switch does not include labour.

Under questioning, Barra said GM's decision not to make the fix because of cost considerations was "disturbing" and unacceptable, and she assured members of Congress that that kind of thinking represents the old General Motors, and "that is not how GM does business today”.

She testified that the inexpensive fix to the switch, if undertaken in 2007, would have cost the automaker the equivalent of R1-billion, compared with "substantially" more now.

Tim Murphy, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, read from an e-mail exchange between GM employees and those at Delphi, which made the switch. One said that the Cobalt is "blowing up in their face in regards to the car turning off."

Murphy asked why, if the problem was so big, GM didn't replace all of them in cars already on the road.

"Clearly there were a lot of things happening" at that time, Barra said.


Senator Ed Markey said: "The equivalent of R21. That's how little this ignition switch could have cost to repair, but that was apparently R21 too much for General Motors."

Also testifying was acting administrator David Friedman of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the auto safety agency under attack for not acting on its own evidence that the ignitions posed risks.

But Friedman cast blame on GM, saying the company withheld crucial data that would have triggered an in-depth probe years ago. Friedman said: "If they saw a defect, then they needed to report that to us.”

Several lawmakers said GM and NHTSA repeatedly missed or ignored red flags.

Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn: "It is important that we get to the bottom of this. We want to know who knew what when - and Ms. Barra that includes you."

Legally, GM's 2008-2009 rescue by the government and bankruptcy reorganization could shield it from previous liabilities, a scenario that has infuriated some lawmakers.
Read more on:    general motors  |  mary barra  |  washington  |  detroit

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