GM: Bureaucratic Bungling, Not Coverup

(NECN: Peter Howe, Rehoboth, Mass.) - Saying that essentially mistakes were made and dots weren’t connected by engineers, General Motors CEO Mary Barra insisted Thursday there was no attempt by the giant carmaker to systematically obscure or evade responsibility for an ignition defect that killed at least 13 motorists and by some lawyers’ estimates as many as 60.

"I believe, in my heart, had we known, we would have dealt with this matter in the right period of time, and we wouldn't have had the tragic consequences," Barra said as the company unveiled a 300-page internal investigation on how the ignition defects went unaddressed for so many years. "You had a part that was released to go into production that didn't meet the performance requirements, and then, sadly, when the problems first occurred they were misdiagnosed, they weren't deemed a safety issue because engineers didn't understand the relationship between the switch and the circuitry that deploys the airbag."

Barra said GM has fired 15 people in connection with the scandal. "The minute we knew, we took action, and I think you've seen swift action being taken since the end of January. As it relates across the organization to the number of individuals that are no longer with the company, they represent many functions, engineering, legal, public policy, quality. A disproportionate number of those that are no longer with the company were in senior roles or executive roles."

The problem, which led to the recall of 2.3 million vehicles, involved ignitions prone to shutting off during operation on Saturn Ions, Chevrolet Cobalts, and some other vehicles, which led drivers to lose power steering, power brakes, and air bags and put them and their passengers at risk of crashes and death.

Sean Kane, president and founder of Safety & Research Strategies in Rehoboth, Mass., a national expert on automotive recalls and safety problems, said the so-called major internal investigation left many questions unanswered and unresolved – including why engineers reportedly first thought this was a problem with air bags not deploying as opposed to ignitions shutting off unexpectedly.

"It's very hard to understand why GM's engineers would not look at this loss of power as a safety problem from the get-go," Kane said. "A lot of the hard questions didn’t get answered … They missed the problem that the car shutting off unexpectedly leaves you with no power, no power assist brakes, no power steering, leaving you vulnerable to a crash to begin with."

Kane also said it was striking that no one in a senior position in GM’s executive suite was held to account. "We’ve got these 15 people being fired, but the top-level executives whom they reported to are being absolved. That's troubling."

Also, Kane said, the report showed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fell down on its job of investigating the GM problems, many of which lingered for years while the company was under “Government Motors” federal government control after the Detroit bailout of 2008.

"The American public was not only failed by GM, but they were failed by the government investigators who are supposed to be protecting our interests, and we know now that the agency [NHTSA] proposed doing investigations in 2007 but decided against it, for reasons unknown,’’ Kane said. “For the federal investigators not to recognize the importance of" the ignition shutdowns "as well as GM to slough it off to the side – that is really shocking."

Massachusetts U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey said GM’s response shows the need for legislation he and Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal are pushing to force carmakers to publicize problems like this far sooner, under legislation they’re pushing called the Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act of 2014. It would essentially require carmakers dealing with reports of defects linked to fatalities to report the information to an automatically publicly searchable NHTSA database. Now, NHTSA has to decide to make such information available to the public.

"We need to ensure accountability and that permanent measures are put in place to prevent future deaths," Markey said. "An internal investigation alone is not nearly enough to ensure that a decade-long tragedy like this never happens again. Until we end the 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' culture that enabled these tragedies, we risk the potential that auto manufacturers will again keep deadly secrets and that a regulator will again keep the public in the dark. We need to enact legislation that requires auto manufacturers to submit information on possible defects as soon as they become aware of them, and for NHTSA to make that information available to the public so they can receive true early warnings."

GM also said its victim compensation fund for the crashes, to be run by former 9/11 fund and One Fund Boston director Ken Feinberg, will start taking applications August 1. But GM refused to say Thursday how much relief it will provide or who will qualify and how.

With videographer Scott Wholley

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