WASHINGTON — In her first head-on questioning from Congress, General Motors’ new chief executive, Mary Barra, sought Tuesday to quell a furor over the automaker’s failure for over a decade to fix defective ignition switches blamed for contributing to 13 fatalities in 31 frontal crashes.
She apologized to victims’ families and promised to “do the right thing” both legally and morally.
“While I cannot turn back the clock,” she said in sworn testimony, “as soon as I learned about the problem, we acted without hesitation. We told the world we had a problem that needed to be fixed. . . . Today’s GM will do the right thing.”
But confronted over the company’s repeated postponement of serious action, as well as congressional investigators’ findings that GM fielded at least 133 warranty claims over the problem from June 2003 to June 2012 without fully addressing it, Barra shed little new light.
Again and again, she deflected questions by telling members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that she knew almost nothing about the problem until Jan. 31 and will await the results of an internal investigation being conducted by Anton Valukas, a former U.S. attorney from Chicago, before assigning blame.
However, David Friedman, acting chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pointed blame toward the company, saying that his agency could have addressed the problem years ago if GM had divulged a link between the ignition switch and the failure of airbags to deploy.
Instead, he testified, the agency did not recognize that connection until GM identified it in announcing in February the start of recalls that would expand to more than 2.5 million cars, including Chevrolet Cobalts and HHRs, Saturn Ions and Skys, and Pontiac G5s and Solstices.
Asked by Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado whether General Motors had acted in good faith, Friedman replied: “We have an open investigation to answer that question and if we find that they were not, we will hold them accountable.”
For her part, DeGette held up a copy of the switch during her opening statement and cited a GM estimate that it could have been fixed for 57 cents.
Republican Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, the subcommittee chairman, opened the hearing, citing a litany of questions that neither GM nor NHTSA has answered and vowed that the committee would get to the bottom of the matter.
Barra was unflappable during more than two hours of testimony, facing a crush of photographers as she sat alone at the witness table, with survivors of some of the fatal crashes seated in the audience just behind her and photos of the victims lined up along the wall.
In her opening statement, she sought to calm the outrage by announcing that GM has retained the services of Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw the mega funds that compensated families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, BP’s oil-drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the Boston Marathon bombings, to help the company fulfill its “civil and legal responsibilities.” But when pressed, she declined to say whether Feinberg would have authority to compensate victims’ families.
Members of the subcommittee were skeptical because of a string of revelations in recent weeks, including subcommittee findings that:
_ A pre-production report in 2001 for the model 2003 Saturn Ion identified ignition switch issues, though it said a design change had solved the problem.
_ GM supplier Delphi advised GM in February 2002 that the ignition switch torque was below the original specifications, a problem later shown to make it easier for the ignition to turn off from the force of a swinging keychain or a knee bump.
_ In early 2005, the Cobalt Program engineering manager closed a review of the ignition switch problem by saying that “tooling cost and piece price are too high” and that no proposed solution would fully solve the problem.
_ Later in 2005, a NHTSA investigation of a fatal crash of a Cobalt found that the airbags had not deployed and that the ignition key was turned to the “accessory” position, but federal investigators did not connect the problem to a switch defect.
_ GM designed a replacement part for future models but did not give it a new part number, a failing that drew sharp scrutiny from subcommittee members.
_ After a meeting with NHTSA in 2007, GM identified 10 frontal crashes involving Cobalts in which the airbags did not deploy, but GM apparently didn’t provide enough information for federal regulators to connect the dots between the airbags and the ignition switches.
_ In November 2007, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations opened an inquiry into the non-deployment of airbags in 2003-2006 Cobalts and Ions based on 29 complaints and four fatal crashes.
Friedman said, however, that when data involving GM’s cars was crunched in the context of the number of vehicles on the road, the reported incidents did not stand out as an alarming trend.
Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California noted that of the 133 warranty claims about vehicles unexpectedly stalling or turning off after mild bumps: “To this day, GM has not reported the vast majority of these incidents to (the) National Highway Traffic Administration or revealed them to the public.”