The 57-cent solution: Congress demands answers from GM's CEO on deadly ignition-switch defect

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WASHINGTON — 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.

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill about the mishandled recall of 2.6 million small cars with a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 traffic deaths.  EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill about the mishandled recall of 2.6 million small cars with a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 traffic deaths.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill before a House subcommittee, GM’s Mary Barra acknowledged under testy questioning the company took too long to act. She promised changes at GM that would prevent a lapse from happening.

“If there’s a safety issue, we’re going to make the right change and accept that,” said Barra, who became CEO in January. But as relatives of the crash victims looked on, she admitted that she didn’t know why it took years for the defect to be announced. And she deflected 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 April 7.

Barra was firm but calm and polite throughout proceedings. But she struggled at times to answer pointed questions, particularly about why GM used the switch when it knew the part didn’t meet its own specifications.

When she tried to draw a distinction between parts that didn’t meet specifications and those that were defective and dangerous, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, shot back: “What you just answered is gobbledygook.”

She also announced that GM has hired Kenneth Feinberg – who handled the fund for the victims of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill – to explore ways to compensate victims of accidents in the GM cars. Barra stopped short of saying GM would establish such a fund.

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.

In his prepared remarks, David Friedman, the 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.

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.


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