WASHINGTON — The fix for a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 traffic deaths would have cost just 57 cents, members of Congress said Tuesday as they demanded answers from General Motors’ new CEO on why the automaker took 10 years to recall cars with the defect.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill before a House subcommittee, GM’s Mary Barra acknowledged under often testy questioning that the company took too long to act. She promised changes at GM that would prevent such a lapse from happening again.
“If there’s a safety issue, we’re going to make the right change and accept that,” said Barra, who became CEO in January and almost immediately found herself thrust into one of the biggest product safety crises Detroit has ever seen.
But as relatives of the crash victims looked on intently, she admitted that she didn’t know why it took years for the dangerous defect to be announced. And she deflected many questions about what went wrong, saying an internal investigation is underway.
Since February, GM has recalled 2.6 million cars — mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions — over the faulty switch, which can cause the engine to cut off in traffic, disabling the power steering, power brakes and air bags and making it difficult to control the vehicle. The automaker said new switches should be available starting April 7.
Barra was firm, calm and polite throughout the proceedings. But she struggled at times to answer lawmakers’ pointed questions, particularly about why GM used the switch when it knew the part didn’t meet its own specifications.
When she tried to draw a distinction between parts that didn’t meet specifications and those that were defective and dangerous, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, shot back: “What you just answered is gobbledygook.”
She also announced that GM has hired Kenneth Feinberg — who handled the fund for the victims of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill — to explore ways to compensate victims of accidents in the GM cars. Barra stopped short of saying GM would establish such a fund.
Some of the questioners appeared surprised that Barra hadn’t reviewed the tens of thousands of pages of documents that GM submitted to the committee, and that she was unaware of some decision-making processes at the company.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., held up a switch for one of the cars and showed how a light set of car keys could move the ignition out of the “run” position.
GM has said that in 2005, company engineers proposed solutions to the switch problem, but the automaker concluded that none represented “an acceptable business case.”
“Documents provided by GM show that this unacceptable cost increase was only 57 cents,” DeGette said. The 57 cents is just the cost of the replacement switch. The figure does not include the labor costs involved in installing the new part.
Barra testified that the fix to the switch, if undertaken in 2007, would have cost GM about $100 million, compared with “substantially” more now.
Under questioning, she said the automaker’s decision not to make the fix because of cost considerations was “disturbing” and unacceptable.”
In prepared remarks, David Friedman, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said GM had information last decade that could have led to a recall, but shared it only last month.
Timeline on GM recall
• 2001: A report on the Saturn Ion, which was still in development, notes problems with the ignition switch, but says a design change solved the problems.
• February 2002: GM approves the ignition switch design, even though it was told by Delphi — the supplier — that it didn’t meet GM’s specifications.
• 2003: A service technician reports that a Saturn Ion stalled while driving, and the weight of the owners’ keys had worn down the ignition switch.
• Late 2004: GM learns of at least one crash where a Cobalt engine lost power after the driver inadvertently moved the key or steering column. An inquiry is opened within the company, but closes after potential solutions are rejected.
• March 2005: The Cobalt’s engineering manager closes an investigation, saying an ignition switch fix would take too long and cost too much, and that “none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.”
• May 2005: A GM engineer proposes changing the design of the key so it won’t tug the ignition switch downward. The solution is initially approved but later cancelled.
• July 29, 2005: Amber Marie Rose, 16, dies in a frontal crash in her 2005 Cobalt. NHTSA found the Cobalt’s ignition had moved out of the “run” position and into the “accessory” position, which cut off power to the power steering and air bags.
• December 2005: GM tells dealers to inform owners of Cobalts to take excess items off their key chains so the key isn’t pulled downward.
• April 2006: A GM engineer signs off on a redesign of the ignition switch.
• October 2006: GM updates the dealer bulletin to add vehicles from the 2007 model year.
• March 2007: A group of GM employees learn from NHTSA staff of the 2005 fatal crash. By the end of the year, GM has data on nine crashes — in four, the ignition had moved.
• August 2007: NHTSA studies a deadly 2006 Wisconsin crash. The report finds the ignition in the 2005 Cobalt was in the accessory position.
• September 2007: Chief of NHTSA’s Defects Assessment Division proposes an investigation.
• 2011: GM launches a new investigation into 2005-07 Cobalts and the 2007 Pontiac G5.
• December 2013: Incoming CEO Mary Barra learns about the ignition switch defect.
• January 2014: GM approves a recall.
• Feb. 13: GM recalls 780,000 compact cars.
• Feb. 25: GM expands the recall to include Saturn Ions and three other vehicles.
• March 5: NHTSA demands that GM turn over documents showing when it found out about the ignition switch problem.
• March 17: GM announces three new recalls of 1.5 million vehicles.
• March 18: Barra apologizes for the deaths.
• March 31: GM recalls 1.5 million vehicles.
• April 1-2: Barra, NHTSA acting chief David Friedman to testify before Congressional committees.
• April 7: GM expects replacement switches to be available at dealerships.