05 March 2014


This story first appeared in The Detroit News.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra vowed Tuesday to hold the company accountable for the chain of the events that led to the recall of 1.6 million older cars linked to 13 deaths when ignition switch problems caused air bags not to deploy in frontal crashes.

Barra posted on an internal website and on a company blog Tuesday that she has created a “working group of senior executives, which I lead, to direct our response, monitor our progress and make adjustments as necessary. We sincerely apologized to our customers and others who have a stake in GM’s success.” The company originally reported that the message was sent as an email to employees.

A chronology that GM turned over to NHTSA last week showed GM downplayed the ignition switch issue in prior years, including canceling in 2005 an approved redesign of the ignition key head. By the end of 2007, GM said it knew of 10 frontal crashes in which air bags didn’t deploy — linked to the ignition problem — but the automaker opted not to recall the cars. Of the 13 deaths reported by GM as linked to the issue, the last occurred in December 2009.

The Detroit automaker “launched an internal review to give us an unvarnished report on what happened. We will hold ourselves accountable and improve our processes so our customers do not experience this again,” said Barra’s email, which was distributed by GM to reporters.

She said the company is going far beyond simply recalling the vehicles.

“When this was brought to my team a few weeks ago, we acted without hesitation to go well beyond the decision by the technical experts,” Barra said in an email to employees.

This is the first major crisis Barra has faced since taking over the reins at GM less than two months ago.

Last week, The Detroit News first reported GM had hired an outside law firm to conduct a full review of the issue. GM said after it released Barra’s email that the internal review to which she referred is an outside review being led by the law firm that GM has not identified.

The review will carefully scrutinize decisions by GM over a decade, and the automaker’s initial decisions not to recall the cars but instead issue a technical service bulletin to dealers. GM North America President Alan Batey apologized last week for the company’s handling of the issue and said in a statement that its review was flawed.

Barra declined to comment about the issues when asked about them by the Reuters news organization last week.

In the letter, Barra said, “Our process for determining whether and when to recall a vehicle is decided by experienced technical experts. They do their work independent of managers with responsibilities for other aspects of the business, so that their decisions are made solely on technical facts and engineering analysis.”

GM expects to have replacement parts ready by early April. Barra said GM has “empowered our dealers with resources to provide affected customers with the peace of mind they deserve” and has “coordinated with our supplier to ramp up development and validation of replacement parts to get them into the field as fast as possible.”

She said some have asked if “the recall of these out-of-production vehicles might affect our company’s reputation or sales of our current models.

“My answer is simple: that’s not the issue. The vehicles we make today are the best in memory and I’m confident that they will do fine, on their own merits. And our company’s reputation won’t be determined by the recall itself, but by how we address the problem going forward.”

Last week, the National Highway Safety Administration said it was opening a formal investigation into the timeliness of GM’s recall. It is reviewing GM’s recall of 2005-07 Cobalts and other similar cars. In early February the automaker said it would recall 788,000 vehicles but didn’t recall all models with the same suspect part.

Last week, GM announced it was doubling the size of the recall to 1.62 million worldwide, including about 1.37 million in the United States.

GM could face a maximum $35 million fine if it failed to recall the vehicles within five days of determining they posed an unreasonable risk to safety. It also faces tens of millions of dollars in costs to recall the vehicles.

GM could also face new lawsuits over the problem. The automaker already has settled at least two suits involving fatal Cobalt crashes. Sean Kane, a safety advocate, said the recall could prompt Congress to scrutinize NHTSA and look at how fast it is responding to safety issues.