April 11, 2014 at 11:49 pm

GM criticized as 'slow to act' by feds in 2013

Records released Thursday show GM engineers conducted lengthy reviews of ignition switch issues and potential costs of replacement. (Olivier Douliery / MCT)

Washington — A senior official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration raised serious concerns in July 2013 about how General Motors Co. handled safety issues, saying the Detroit automaker was “slow to act” and to communicate with regulators on auto safety issues.

The safety agency’s detailed list of concerns prompted a high-level meeting between GM and regulators. Detailed in emails released Friday by a congressional panel, they are the first disclosure that NHTSA had questioned GM’s approach to auto safety before the recall of 2.59 million cars in February and March. GM has linked at least 13 deaths to the now-recalled cars because of defective ignition switches.

“The general perception is that GM is slow to communicate, slow to act, and at times, requires additional effort of (NHTSA) that we do not feel is necessary with some of your peers,” NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation director Frank Borris said in a July 23, 2013, email to M. Carmen Benavides, head of GM’s product investigations, safety regulations and certifications. The email was released by the House committee investigating GM’s slow response to recalling Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and similar cars.

The email shows GM repeatedly, in recent years, opted to distribute service bulletins to dealers rather than issue recalls — and recalled vehicles only when pressured by NHTSA investigators

GM issued at least three technical service bulletins before 2007 to address customer concerns about the bad ignition switches. It repeatedly opted not to recall the cars or pay for ignition switch fixes. It is far cheaper to issue guidance to dealers on how to deal with customer complaints than pay for new parts or a broad recall.

The weak switches can inadvertently turn off the engine, especially when a heavy key chain swings from the key. That disables power steering and air bags.

The emails, among more than 60 documents released Friday, reveal that GM had to be pushed by NHTSA in late 2012 to address problems with front air bags that the agency believed were “fairly obvious” safety concerns. NHTSA listed six separate issues in which GM had to be pressured to recall vehicles or expand recalls stemming from regional problems, such as those where cars rust from salt being spread on roads.

Borris ended his email by saying there is a “general perception” at NHTSA that GM is “one of, if not, the worst offender of the regional recall policy.”

In an emailed response about Borris’ concerns to senior company staff, Mike Robinson, GM’s vice president for sustainability and global regulatory affairs, wrote: “This note from NHTSA, both the content and tone, comes like a bolt out of the blue ... We worked way too hard to earn a reputation as the best and we are not going to let this slide.”

NHTSA declined Friday to comment on the exchange.

Said GM spokesman Kevin Kelly: "We strive to provide timely and accurate information to our regulators."

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who heads the House committee investigating the recall, said these “initial documents revealed failures within the system. And when it comes to vehicle safety, a matter of life and death, there is no margin for error.”

The records show that just weeks before the July 2013 meeting, NHTSA opened an investigation into GM’s recall of 43,000 cars — 2013 Malibu Eco and 2012-13 Regal, LaCrosse eAssist hybrids — for battery problems that could lead to an engine stall or fire due to problems with the eAssist light-hybrid system. GM’s remedy was to stress-test a component; only if it failed would GM replace it. But NHTSA said a car that earlier had been stress-tested caught on fire, raising questions about whether the screening actually worked.

The agency also questioned GM’s two recalls in 2012 and 2013 of about 10,000 cars to address a problem with electrical connectors in front air bags. Last year, NHTSA opened an investigation to determine whether the recall also should cover 400,000 2012 Chevrolet Camaros, Cruzes and Sonics and Buick Veranos. NHTSA said in its email to GM in July 2013 that GM’s actions were “particularly frustrating” because this was a “fairly obvious” safety issue.

In another instance in 2012, NHTSA opened an investigation into door modules melting on model year 2006-2007 Chevrolet Trailblazers. GM eventually recalled the Trailblazers, along with other SUVs — but only in “salt-belt” states. Ten months later, at the behest of NHTSA, GM expanded the recall to all states.

“All of the manufacturers play these kinds of games and drag things out,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts-based auto research group. “I’m not so sure GM is a whole lot different than other automakers.”

Cost was a concern

Records released Thursday also show that GM engineers conducted lengthy reviews of ignition switch issues — and potential costs of replacing them.

GM CEO Mary Barra said last week the company no longer considers cost when considering safety recalls, but the documents show that GM’s recall committee looked closely at the costs of a potential recall in December 2013 — just weeks before she took over the helm at GM.

GM said then that the cost to add key inserts into the 2005-07 Chevy Cobalts and Pontiac G5s and Pontiac Pursuits would cost $14.2 million, and as much as $41.3 million to replace the switches. GM also told its executive field action decision committee that it would cost about $34.3 million to replace the switches in the 2003-07 Ion, HHR, Solstice, Sky and other models.

One email shows Barra was made aware of a steering problem in Saturn Ion cars in October 2011 after the company had recalled the Cobalt and Pontiac G5s. “Mary, during the initial Cobalt case, the Ion data did not justify being included,” another GM employee, Terry Woychowski, wrote her. The email included a copy of a New York Times story about NHTSA upgrading its investigation into Saturn Ions.

GM didn’t decide to recall the Ions for steering issues until late March of this year.

GM said in a statement that the email didn’t contradict Barra’s testimony before Congress that she was unaware of the ignition switch problems. The steering issue was “completely separate from the ignition-related recalls. The email in no way contradicts Ms. Barra’s previous statements or testimony before the House or Senate subcommittees. The email was among the thousands of documents GM willingly provided to” Congress, GM said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the new documents raise “very serious questions — which GM and CEO Mary Barra must address immediately — about whether she knew more, and earlier, about disabling defects in GM cars than she has acknowledged.”

Michael Robinson, GM's vice president for sustainability and global ...