When General Motors chief executive Mary Barra faces Congress this week she will have to explain how the top brass at the biggest US automaker can say they knew nothing for more than a decade about a faulty ignition switch linked to crashes and at least 12 deaths.
For lawmakers trying to find who to blame for the lack of responsiveness by GM and its regulator to the tragedies, and in particular the multi-year delay in recalling potentially dangerous vehicles off the roads, it may turn out to be a frustrating couple of days.
GM built a system to deliberately keep senior executives out of the recall process. Instead, two small groups of employees in the vast GM bureaucracy were tasked with making recall decisions, a system GM says was meant to bring objective decisions.
It means that lawmakers may also focus on asking who is responsible for a system that failed so badly that there weren’t red flags raised for those higher up the food chain.
“In this day and age, to think that stuff like this can be kept quiet or forgotten is ridiculous,” independent auto analyst and author Maryann Keller said. “The right question to ask is who knew, when did they know and why was this not brought forth to be dealt with. Did they hope that it was just going to go away?”
The company has recalled 1.6 million cars for a problem first noted in 2001, spurring the congressional enquiries as well as investigations by federal safety regulators, who will also testify, the Justice Department, and GM itself.
GM has said Barra and other top executives did not learn of the defective switches until January 31, explaining that smaller groups of lower-level company executives are responsible for leading a recall. Some executives who might use this argument include former CEO Rick Wagoner and his immediate successor Fritz Henderson, who have not discussed the matter publicly.
“The process here is supposed to be drilling deep into the data and objectively looking at this and having peer groups question it, and senior management and leadership’s influence on that is not a healthy thing,” global product development chief Mark Reuss said last week.
GM spokesman Jim Cain said the company was not yet commenting on why the decision to recall took so long. GM is still investigating, he added.
Within the GM community, several former executives contacted by Reuters were asking why the ignition switch problem