Congress to grill GM chief about recall

Detroit and Washington - When General Motors (GM) chief executive Mary Barra faces the US Congress this week, she will have to explain how the top brass at the biggest American car maker can say they knew nothing for more than a decade about a faulty ignition switch linked to crashes and at least 12 deaths.

For legislators trying to decide who to blame for the lack of responsiveness by GM and its regulator, in particular the multi-year delay in recalling potentially dangerous vehicles, it may be a frustrating few days.

Mary Barra, the chief executive of General Motors, will testify in Congress this week after 1.6 million cars were recalled to check a faulty ignition switch linked to fatalities. Photo: Bloomberg. Credit: Bloomberg

GM built a system to deliberately keep senior executives out of the recall process. Instead, two small groups of employees were tasked with making recall decisions, a system GM says was meant to bring objective decisions.

It means that legislators may also focus on asking who is responsible for a system that failed so badly that there were no red flags raised for those higher up the food chain.

“The right question to ask is who knew, when did they know and why was this not brought forth to be dealt with?” independent automotive analyst and author Maryann Keller said.

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.

“The process here is supposed to be drilling deep… and senior management and leadership’s influence on that is not a healthy thing,” GM’s 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 as long as it did. It was still investigating.

When the ignition switch in older-model cars is jostled, a key could turn off the car’s engine and disable airbags and other components, sometimes while travelling at high speed.

Barra will testify in the House tomorrow and in the Senate on Wednesday.

For more than a decade the company carried out enquiries to track the problem, according to a timeline that GM filed with regulators. GM first learned of the issue in 2001.

Members of Congress, as well as safety advocates, want to know whether senior GM executives may have learned of the issue long before it surfaced late last year and led to last month’s recall. – Reuters