DETROIT - When General Motors Co.'s Mary Barra begins congressional hearings today as an emissary of what she has portrayed as a more-responsive GM, she will face down decades of skepticism - and fresh indications that the automaker decided it would be too expensive to fix the flawed ignition switches behind several deadly crashes.
DETROIT — When General Motors Co.’s Mary Barra begins congressional hearings today as an emissary of what she has portrayed as a more-responsive GM, she will face down decades of skepticism — and fresh indications that the automaker decided it would be too expensive to fix the flawed ignition switches behind several deadly crashes.
GM’s history of contentious battles over vehicle safety stretches back 50 years to the Chevrolet Corvair. The automaker’s reluctance to go public with costly fixes continued into the past decade as it studied ignition-switch failures in the Chevrolet Cobalt but declined to make them, according to documents released by congressional investigators.
Yesterday, GM recalled more than 1.5 million more vehicles because they might unexpectedly lose power steering.
This brings to 6.26 million the number of vehicles recalled by GM since the start of this year.
“Steering control can be maintained because the vehicle will revert to manual steering, but greater driver effort would be required at low vehicle speeds, which could increase the risk of a crash,” GM said in a statement.
Three of the six models recalled yesterday are also involved in an ignition-switch recall of 2.6 million vehicles worldwide. That defect is linked to 13 deaths.
Those models are the 2010 Cobalt compact, the Chevrolet HHR compact from model years 2009 and 2010, and the Saturn ION compact from model year 2004 to 2007.
The company also said yesterday that it expects to take a charge of up to $750 million in the first quarter, primarily related to recalls announced in the quarter. This includes a previously disclosed $30 million charge for three recalls announced on March 17, and the ignition-switch recall on Feb. 25.
GM opened an engineering inquiry into the Cobalt ignition switch in November 2004, after customers complained the engine “can be keyed off with knee while driving,” according to a document obtained by House investigators. Four months later, the Cobalt program engineering manager rejected a change, citing parts costs and long lead times.
“None of the solutions presents an acceptable business case,” said a GM memo cited by the House committee that didn’t identify the engineer. Gary Altman, a GM engineer, testified in a lawsuit last year that he was program engineering manager for the Cobalt in March 2005 and continued in the job until that May. The committee initially attributed the statements to a “project” engineering manager and corrected the title to “program” engineering manager yesterday.
GM didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on Altman’s role.
Such decisions are set to be the focus of hearings today in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and on Wednesday in the Senate. Barra, GM’s CEO, is being asked to explain the handling of years of complaints linked to the ignition switches.
“Lives are at stake, and we will follow the facts where they take us as we work to pinpoint where the system failed,” Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement on Sunday. Upton’s committee has collected more than 200,000 pages of documents from GM and 6,000 pages from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it said on Sunday in a memo.
Barra, 52, has been CEO for less than three months. She has apologized for the slow response that resulted in deaths. GM also has hired an outside investigator to probe the delay and has created a vice president position in charge of global vehicle safety, as Barra has sought to shore up GM’s image and reinforce the automaker’s message that it’s re-creating itself after its taxpayer-funded bailout in 2009.
Still, Washington veterans aren’t likely to forget GM’s bruising fights with regulators and safety advocates such as Ralph Nader. Among the battles, GM has pushed back against claims in the 1990s that its side-saddle gas tanks made pickups vulnerable to explosions and tangled with safety advocates over changes to air bags.
“That’s certainly what’s on the minds of people who have seen these recalls in the past. She’s going to take a beating over that, there isn’t any question about that,” said Chris Malone, a managing partner of Fidelum Partners, who has studied the effects of recalls on brands.
The NHTSA is also expected to come under scrutiny in the congressional hearings.
The agency passed over an opportunity to address the ignition-switch defect in 2007, when it opted not to open a formal defect investigation even after an agency official had said a probe was justified, according to an interview between current NHTSA officials and staff members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Years of frustration about GM came to a head in late 2008 when the automaker sought Congress’s help to stave off collapse. Then-CEO Rick Wagoner endured multiple hearings in which he and other Detroit executives faced tough questions and criticism. The government ultimately spent about $50 billion bailing out the company.