By Keith Laing - 04/01/14 05:03 PM EDT
Facing an onslaught of congressional criticism, the head of General Motors on Tuesday said the company is “deeply sorry” for the failure to swiftly recall vehicles with a dangerous ignition switch flaw.
"Today's GM will do the right thing. That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry," Barra said.
Lawmakers pressed Barra to explain why it took so long for GM to address the problem with the vehicles, which rolled off assembly lines in the mid-2000s but were not recalled until earlier this year.
“GM knew about this problem in 2001,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). “They were warned again and again over the next decade, but they did nothing.”
DeGette held up an ignition switch with keys hanging from it to illustrate how easily the ignition in the vehicles could be cut.
“If you had a heavy key chain like my mom, or … if you were short and you bumped up against the ignition with your knee, it could cause this key to switch right off,” DeGette said, adding that the problem was caused by a spring that costs “pennies.”
Thirteen deaths have been linked to the ignition switch problem. Relatives of those victims were in attendance during Tuesday’s hearing and, earlier in the day, ripped the auto company during a press conference outside the Capitol.
“Our daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, wives and husbands are gone because they were a cost of doing business GM style,” said Maryland resident Laura Christian, whose daughter Amber Marie Rose was killed in a 2005 accident, while she was driving a Chevrolet Cobalt.
Christian said GM executives “made a decision that ‘fighting’ the problem was cheaper and easier than ‘fixing’ the problem.”
Barra took pains to distance herself from decisions that were made at the auto company before she took over as chief executive.
"This is an extraordinary situation. It involves vehicles we no longer make, but it came to light on my watch, so I'm responsible for resolving it,” Barra told the panel. “When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators and with our customers.”
Lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee were hardly in a forgiving mood.
Representatives in both parties repeatedly pressed Barra to explain why the recall took so long and said complaints about the ignition switch started coming in almost as soon as many of the models hit the roadways.
“As soon as the Chevy Cobalt rolled off the production line in 2004, customers began filing complaints about the ignition switch,” said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), the chairman of the subpanel.
“According to GM's public statements, it wasn't until December 2013 the company finally put the pieces together and linked the problems with the airbags with the faulty ignition switch almost 10 years after customers first told GM the Cobalt ignition switch didn't work,” Murphy said.
Murphy also questioned why regulators at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t order the recall right away.
“The red flags were there for GM and NHTSA to take action, but for some reason, it did not happen. Why didn't GM and NHTSA put the pieces together for 10 years? Why didn't anyone ask the critical, important questions? Why did GM accept parts below their own company standards and specs?”
Barra was pressed about specific dates and times of GM’s actions involving the recalled cars, and appeared to get flustered, when lawmakers asked her to defend actions that occurred before her tenure as CEO.
“Clearly, there were a lot of things that happened,” she said. “There's been a lot of statements made as it relates. That's why we've hired [attorney] Anton Valukas to do a complete investigation of this process. We are spanning over a decade of time.”
Barra’s attempt to distance herself from her predecessors at GM was met with skepticism.
“You are the company right now,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said.
Barra attempted to stick to her forward-looking focus and told lawmakers said was determined to fix the damage done to the company and its customers.
She said GM has hired Washington attorney Ken Feinberg to be a consultant on the company’s response to the recall.
Feinberg is a specialist in corporate crisis compensation payments, having overseen payments to families of victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the 2007 Virginia Tech University mass shooting and the 2010 BP oil spill.
Barra said she has told GM employees that “getting the cars repaired is only the first step” and is urging them to focus on being responsive to drivers of the recalled vehicles who are looking for repairs.
“Giving customers the best service possible is how we will be judged,” Barra said.