GM CEO Barra struggles with Congress questions

WASHINGTON (AP) — The fix for a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 traffic deaths would have cost just 57 cents, members of Congress said Tuesday as they demanded answers from General Motors’ new CEO on why the automaker took 10 years to recall cars with the defect.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill before a House subcommittee, GM’s Mary 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.

“If there’s a safety issue, we’re going to make the right change and accept that,” said Barra, who became CEO in January and almost immediately found herself thrust into one of the biggest product safety crises Detroit has ever seen.

But as relatives of the crash victims looked on intently, she admitted that she didn’t know why it took years for the safety defect to be announced. And she deflected many questions about what went wrong, saying an internal investigation is under way.

Since February, GM has recalled 2.6 million cars — mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions — over the faulty switch, which can cause the engine to cut off and the vehicle to lose power steering and power brakes. The automaker said new switches should be available starting April 7.

Rosie Cortinas, center, holds a photo of her son Amador Cortinas of Homedale, Idaho, who was killed on Oct. 18, 2013, while driving a friend home in a Chevy Cobalt, joins other families whose loved ones died behind the wheel of defective General Motors vehicles plagued by a defective ignition switch linked to 13 deaths and dozens of crashes, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will look for answers today from GM CEO Mary Barra about a faulty ignition switch and mishandled recall of 2.6 million cars that’s been linked to 13 deaths and dozens of crashes. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rosie Cortinas, center, holds a photo of her son Amador Cortinas of Homedale, Idaho, who was killed on Oct. 18, 2013, while driving a friend home in a Chevy Cobalt, joins other families whose loved ones died behind the wheel of defective General Motors vehicles plagued by a defective ignition switch linked to 13 deaths and dozens of crashes, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will look for answers today from GM CEO Mary Barra about a faulty ignition switch and mishandled recall of 2.6 million cars that’s been linked to 13 deaths and dozens of crashes. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Barra was firm but calm and polite throughout the proceedings. But she 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.

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

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

“Documents provided by GM show that this unacceptable cost increase was only 57 cents,” Rep. Diana DeGette said.

Rep. Tim Murphy, 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.

In his prepared remarks, David Friedman, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pointed the finger at GM, saying the automaker had information last decade that could have led to a recall, but shared it only last month.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 1, 2014, while testifying before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
General Motors CEO Mary Barra listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 1, 2014, while testifying before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Rep. Henry Waxman said that House Energy and Commerce Committee staff members found 133 warranty claims filed with GM over 10 years detailing customer complaints of sudden engine stalling when they drove over a bump or brushed keys with their knees.

The claims were filed between June 2003 and June 2012.

Waxman said that because GM didn’t undertake a simple fix when it learned of the problem, “at least a dozen people have died in defective GM vehicles.”

Some current GM car owners and relatives of those who died in crashes were also in Washington seeking answers. The group attended the hearing after holding a news conference demanding action against GM and stiffer legislation.

Owners can ask dealers for a loaner car while waiting for the replacement part. Barra said GM has provided more than 13,000 loaner vehicles.

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Durbin reported from Detroit. Associated Press writer Marcy Gordon in Washington contributed to this report.

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Where to go in Portland

If you drive one of the vehicles that have been affected,  it will be repaired, for free, at any GM location.

“If you have a concern with that recall, please bring it in,” said Braley Graham Buick and GMC service manager Ethan Woehl.

Service should take between one and one and a half hours, he said.

Woehl advises drivers of recall vehicles to take the ignition key off the rest of the keychain, because the extra weight poses more of a risk for various problems.

This is a timeline of key events, based on documents from GM, NHTSA and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

2001: A report on the Saturn Ion, which was still in development, notes problems with the ignition switch, but says a design change solved the problems.

February 2002: GM approves the ignition switch design, even though it was told by Delphi — the supplier — that initial tests showed the switch didn’t meet GM’s specifications.

2003: A service technician reports that a Saturn Ion stalled while driving, and that the weight of the owners’ keys had worn down the ignition switch.

Late 2004: The Saturn Ion’s cousin, the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, goes on sale. GM learns of at least one crash where a Cobalt engine lost power after the driver inadvertently moved the key or steering column. GM engineers replicate the problem in test drives. An inquiry is opened within the company, but closes after potential solutions are rejected.

February 2005: GM engineers meet to consider making changes to the ignition switch after stalling reports. But an engineer says the switch is “very fragile” and advises against changes.

March 2005: The engineering manager of the Cobalt closes an investigation, saying an ignition switch fix would take too long and cost too much, and that “none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.”

May 2005: A GM engineer proposes changing the design of the key so it won’t tug the ignition switch downward. The solution is initially approved but later cancelled.

July 29, 2005: Amber Marie Rose, 16, dies in a frontal crash in her 2005 Cobalt. A contractors hired by NHTSA found that the Cobalt’s ignition had moved out of the “run” position and into the “accessory” position, which cut off power to power steering the air bags.

September 2005: GM’s legal staff opens a file on the Maryland crash.

December 2005: GM tells dealers to inform owners of Cobalts to take excess items off their key chains so the key isn’t pulled downward. Also, inserts placed on customers’ keys can prevent the keys from shifting while in the ignition. The bulletin includes the 2005-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2003-2006 Saturn Ion, 2006 Chevrolet HHR, 2006 Pontiac Solstice and the 2005-2006 Pontiac Pursuit, which was sold in Canada. Warranty records show that only 474 owners got those key inserts.

April 2006: A GM engineer signs off on a redesign of the ignition switch. The new switch goes into cars from the 2007 model year and later.

October 2006: GM updates the dealer bulletin to add vehicles from the 2007 model year.

March 2007: A group of GM employees learn from NHTSA staff of the 2005 fatal crash. By the end of the year, GM has data on nine crashes — in four, the ignition had moved from the run position to the accessory position.

August 2007: NHTSA contracts with Indiana University to study a 2006 Wisconsin crash in which two passengers died. The report finds the ignition in the 2005 Cobalt was in the accessory position and the air bags didn’t deploy.

September 2007: Chief of NHTSA’s Defects Assessment Division proposes an investigation of air bags failing to deploy in the Cobalt and Ion. Two months later, a NHTSA panel decides not to open a formal investigation, saying that the air bags aren’t failing at a higher rate than peer vehicles.

2009: GM decides to change the key’s head from a “slot” design to a “hole” design to reduce downward force. The key is changed for the 2010 model year — the last year the Cobalt is sold.

2010: After a NHTSA investigation, GM agrees to repair power steering motors in a little more than 1 million 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007-2010 Pontiac G5s.

2011: GM launches a new investigation into 2005-2007 Cobalts and the 2007 Pontiac G5 to determine why their air bags didn’t deploy in crashes.

2012: GM widens the investigation, but it closes without reaching a conclusion.

December 2013: Incoming CEO Mary Barra learns about the ignition switch defect.

January 2014: A committee of GM executives approves a recall.

Feb. 13: GM recalls 780,000 compact cars, including Chevrolet Cobalts, Pontiac G5s and Pontiac Pursuits from the 2005-2007 model years.

Feb. 25: GM expands the recall to include Saturn Ions and three other vehicles. The recall now totals 1.6 million vehicles worldwide.

March 5: NHTSA demands that GM turn over by April 3 documents showing when it found out about the ignition switch problem. Barra promises employees an “unvarnished” investigation into what happened.

March 10 — A House subcommittee says it will hold a hearing, eventually set for April 1, on the GM recalls. The Justice Department is also conducting a criminal probe.

March 17 — GM announces three new recalls of 1.5 million vehicles, as part of an effort to assure buyers that it’s moving faster to fix safety defects.

March 18 — Barra apologizes for the deaths that occurred. She appoints a new global safety chief.

March 28 — GM expands the small car recall to include 971,000 vehicles from the 2008-2011 model years, which may have gotten the defective switches as replacement parts.

March 31 — GM recalls 1.5 million vehicles, including the 2010 Cobalt and the 2004-2007 Ion, because the electronic power-steering assist can suddenly stop working.

April 1-2 — Barra, NHTSA acting chief David Friedman to testify before Congressional committees.

April 7 — GM expects replacement switches to be available at dealerships. The company says the repairs could take until October.

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