General Motors is in a world of hurt.
With 6.3 million cars under recall and at least 13 fatalities associated with faulty ignition switches in Chevrolet Cobalts, the outlook for the corporate giant would be bad enough.
But with evidence that the car maker knew about the ignition problem for at least a decade and suppressed damning documents, the case is mounting that something was rotten in GM’s castle.
It’s reminiscent of automotive debacles of the past, events that undermined American consumers’ faith in the quality and safety of American cars. Remember the exploding gas tanks of Ford Pintos in the 1970s?
In Senate hearings last week, General Motors’ new CEO, Mary Barra, barely survived intensive grilling. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who chaired a Commerce subcommittee hearing last Wednesday, waved one document that showed a GM engineer was a perjurer and essentially dared Barra to deny the evidence.
It was all good political theater. And a bipartisan attack, too: Sen. Barbara Boxer, an unerringly liberal California Democrat, hardly let Barra speak in the gaps between her expressions of outrage. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a rising GOP star, suggested that GM’s internal operation, which apparently approved a part change without alerting regulators, had committed a crime.
The ignition switches in Cobalts and other GM cars were susceptible to failing if the driver’s key ring carried too many objects or the cars were otherwise jostled on a bumpy road. In many cases the cars lost power and upon collision air bags failed to deploy.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut repeatedly tried to get Barra to answer a simple question: Would Barra allow her children to drive an unrepaired Cobalt?
Her replies were hesitant and incomplete.
What appears to be a GM coverup might never had been discovered if a lawyer and engineer investigating one Georgia woman’s death-by-Cobalt hadn’t wrenched from the company details of the part switch.
In any responsible manufacturing operation, every part is identified by number and when a part is changed, its number is supposed to change as well. That provides the utmost transparency and traceability. In the case of these ignition switches, a faulty part was apparently swapped out but its inventory number remained the same, thus hiding the truth of a defect.
“It might have been the Old GM that started sweeping this defect under the rug 10 years ago,” McCaskill said. “But even under the New GM banner the company waited nine months to take action after being confronted with specific evidence of this egregious violation of public trust.”
Barra, a longtime GM engineer, ascended to the CEO’s office on Jan. 31, just weeks before the Cobalt crisis went public. She calmly took her shots, but weakly repeated her inability to answer many questions until an internal review by an independent investigator is completed in 45 to 60 days.
GM’s crisis is tied to a small part within a part that might have cost the company less than $2 to replace per vehicle.
At least Barra had the right response when pressed by Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, on whether a cost-benefit analysis had gotten in the way of doing the right thing. “That type of analysis,” she replied, “is not acceptable on a safety issue.”
Also in the hot seat in this case is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It remains to be seen how the agency failed to connect significant dots.
McCaskill was impressively aggressive, but she also took care to protect the reputation of the many GM workers. “This is not their failure,” she said. “They and the American public were failed by a corporate leadership that chose to conceal rather than disclose and by a safety regulator that failed to act.”
Steve Paul is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.