March 18, 2014 at 11:13 pm

Barra on recall: GM on track to answer 'what went wrong and why'

Mary Barra (Getty Images)

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra said Tuesday that GM’s recall process into 1.62 million older cars linked to 12 deaths “clearly took too long,” as she named a safety czar and vowed to get to the bottom of what went wrong.

Barra, who met with reporters in Detroit and made her first remarks to the media since last month’s recall, did not offer any detailed explanation of GM’s recall failure that came more than a decade after GM first learned of the problems involving bad ignition switches in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other older cars.

GM’s CEO — who was calm and composed during a 45-minute interview — again apologized for the company’s handling of the recall and said she would testify before Congress if asked. Barra said that neither she nor the board knew of the problem until recent weeks. GM said no one has been fired or disciplined over the recall.

The automaker, through an independent internal investigation that could last a few months, is working to “answer the question what went wrong and why,” Barra said. “We want to make sure this problem never happens again.”

“I know you want to know what happened. So do I. So does Mark,” Barra added, referring to GM product chief Mark Reuss who also addressed media questions.

Both were cautious when asked specific questions about the recall process such as whether vice president-level executives knew of the ignition switch defect and when; they said an internal investigation process must play out first.

GM said it has appointed company veteran Jeff Boyer to a new position as vice president of global vehicle safety. He will meet with Barra once a month or more, and update GM’s board on recall issues.

Reuss said it’s the first change of many things that need to be addressed.

Barra said she had no knowledge of the problem before late December when she learned an analysis was being conducted into the Cobalt. She learned of the Jan. 31 decision to recall the vehicles by the GM team in a phone call from Reuss. The board was not notified until after GM submitted the recall paperwork to NHTSA, Barra said.

Barra said she has instructed former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, who is leading GM’s internal review, that there will be no roadblocks. The investigation will go where the facts lead, and she said there will be “no sacred cows.”

GM’s CEO, on the job since mid-January, said the investigation could take a few months. “We won’t sacrifice accuracy for speed, but we want this done as quickly as possible so we can move forward,” she said.

Barra apologized again for the deaths linked to the recall and said the company will do what is right for customers.

“Clearly, lives have been lost and lives have been affected and that is very serious,” she said. “We want to extend our deep condolences for those losses,” she said.

Barra, who said GM wants to fix all 1.62 million vehicles by sometime in October, emphasized the older Chevy Cobalts, Saturn Ions and similar vehicles are safe to drive when only using the ignition key.The weight of other keys hanging from a ring might inadvertently cause the ignition switch to move to “accessory” or “off” while driving. That could shut down the engine, causing difficulty steering and disabling air bags.

GM said last week it first learned of ignition switch problems in 2001 in a pre-production Saturn Ion and was aware of stalling related to the recall as early as 2003. The automaker opted to buy back at least 13 vehicles and issue service bulletins to dealers, but didn’t recall cars. In 2005, GM approved a redesign of the ignition key head to address the issue, but later canceled it.

The delay has led to announcements of several investigations and increased scrutiny. GM faces a March 25 deadline to turn over records to Congress. The Justice Department also is investigating. The automaker has an April 3 deadline to answer 107 detailed questions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

A team of a half-dozen GM officials and lawyers led by the company’s vice president for global government relations, Lee Godown, met with House Energy and Commerce Committee staff for two-and-a-half hours Tuesday. Godown declined to comment.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the talks between GM and NHTSA will continue.

“Our focus is now on getting the documents and information we requested from both parties. These materials will provide a better understanding of the recalls, the extent of the problems, and the decisions made. We need to know why it took so long to connect the dots. Receiving this information from both GM and NHTSA is critical to understanding what happened, and how we can prevent such failures in the future,” Upton said in a statement.

Barra expects Congress to hold hearings in early April and that if asked to testify, she will.

“My message will be that we are focused on the customer, we are doing everything we can to support the customer and get their vehicles fixed, that I am very sorry for the loss of life that has occurred and we will take every step that we can to make sure this never happens again,” she added. “The second is we will fix our process.”

Barra said she is taking responsibility for leading the recall issue going forward.

Barra wouldn’t answer whether the company as a gesture of goodwill would accept liabilities for accidents that happened before GM became a new company post-bankruptcy. She also wouldn’t answer whether GM would create a victims’ fund. Last week the Center for Auto Safety urged her to set aside $1 billion.

Some lawyers have said they will look to have GM’s 2009 bankruptcy reopened because they believe GM falsely represented that it did not know of any product liability cases that might be brought against them. One Texas lawyer, Bob Hilliard, who plans to file a lawsuit against GM as early as this week representing a woman who was injured and the estates of two girls who died in a 2006 Wisconsin crash, said he would have to convince a bankruptcy judge that GM understood its liability potential.

Under terms of the bankruptcy agreement, the “new” GM is not liable for accidents occurring before bankruptcy.