WASHINGTON – Lawmakers expressed disbelief Wednesday at General Motors’ explanation for why it took 11 years to recall millions of small cars with defective ignition switches, and they confronted its chief executive with evidence that the company dragged its feet on a similar safety issue in different vehicles.
CEO Mary Barra and attorney Anton Valukas, who this month released a 315-page investigative report into the recall, endured skepticism and some lecturing at a House subcommittee hearing. One member referred to the actions of some employees described in the report as insane.
The GM recall has triggered a deeper look at ignition switches across the auto industry. On Wednesday, the government opened an investigation into reports of defective switches in 1.2 million Chrysler vehicles.
Barra made her second appearance before the committee since GM recalled 2.6 million small cars in February. As families of some of the people who died in crashes in Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions looked on, she was again pressed on whether GM’s commitment to safety has changed much.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., read a 2005 email from a GM employee whose 2006 Chevrolet Impala stalled when its ignition slipped out of position while she was driving it.
I’m thinking big recall, the employee wrote – but that recall never came until this week.
Upton asked Barra what GM would do with such an email if it was sent today, and Barra said GM would take immediate action. GM has issued 44 recalls this year.
Lawmakers at the hearing were skeptical of many of the conclusions in Valukas’ report, which was paid for by GM. It found that a lone engineer, Ray DeGiorgio, approved the use of a switch that didn’t meet company specifications. Years later, he ordered a change to that switch without anyone else at GM being aware.
Panel members said that defied credibility at a company with 210,000 employees. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., produced emails showing that other employees were informed of the change.
Valukas said the employees notified by DeGiorgio were from the warranty area, and the change meant nothing to them.
GM is establishing a compensation fund for those killed or injured because of the switches, and Barra said Wednesday there will be no cap on the amount the fund can pay out. GM expects to start taking claims Aug. 1.
Valukas said GM engineers viewed the ignition switch malfunctions and engine stalling as a customer convenience issue rather than a safety problem, believing drivers could adequately control their cars without power steering and power brakes.
That’s just insane, isn’t it? Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., asked Valukas.
I don’t want to use the word insane, but I’m deeply troubled by that, he replied.