In November, 2004, General Motors recalled 2005 model year Chevy Cobalts for faulty headlamps that could cause “additional glare, increasing the risk of crash” to oncoming drivers. In January, 2007, GM recalled more Cobalts to install energy-absorbing plastic in the headliner trim “to reduce the severity of head impacts in a crash.” And in March, 2010, GM again recalled Cobalts to replace crabby power steering motors that would fail “requiring greater driver effort (and) increasing the risk of a crash.”
So much for claims by politicians and their media chorus last week that the late Chevy Cobalt was Exhibit A of an “old GM” that put the bottom line above customer safety.
In fact the multiple GM recalls prove that Swtichgate — the latest, February, 2014 recall of Cobalts (and its sister Saturns and Pontiacs) for faulty ignition switches tied to 13 deaths –– is an anomaly in an industry that relentlessly tracks vehicle faults and recalls them in a timely manner. Last year, more vehicles were recalled than were sold — and this year the industry is on track to recall more vehicles than the record-setting year (30 million) of 2004. Such is the automakers’ obsession with satisfying customers in an intensely competitive market.
The truth is that last week’s Switchgate hearings were evidence not of a failed auto-industry culture but a sick Washington culture where trial-lawyer-funded pols grandstand before cameras about products they don’t understand, while witnesses clam up for fear of criminal gotcha probes by circling U.S. attorneys.
“You don’t know anything about anything,” snapped Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D., Calif.), as GM CEO Mary Barra tip-toed through her testimony. Boxer was one of two women — Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D., Mo.) was the other — who led the Barra witch-hunt in part because they could grill the first female auto CEO without looking like bullies.
But the other part is that Boxer and McCaskill are stooges of the trial-lawyer industry — an industry that stands to make millions from Switchgate lawsuits.
Both senators are on the Top Ten list of trial-lawyer campaign contributions, according to OpenSecrets.org. In the last six years of available data, McCaskill was No. 2 (behind only Harry Reid) with $374,000 in tort lawyer contributions, while Boxer was No. 10 with nearly $200,000.
They are also among those legislators who have endorsed higher fuel-economy mandates (so-called CAFE laws) — even as the National Academy of Sciences found that CAFE standards cause 1,300 to 2,600 traffic deaths every year (a number that dwarfs Switchgate fatalities) by forcing manufacturers to build smaller and lighter cars.
This is not to excuse GM’s slow response to a ten-year-old defect. But the evidence points not to a corporate conspiracy but to product engineers who failed to classify the switch as a safety defect or who covered up the flaw with a circa-2007 fix that didn’t include a corresponding change in part number.
Such issues will be resolved by an internal GM investigation — and in court. In the meantime, Barra was dragged to Capitol Hill fully aware that any uninformed statement could be twisted into a criminal prosecution. Only last month, Toyota was fined $1.2 billion by the Justice Department. Toyota’s crime? Its Congressional testimony didn’t comport with internal documents expressing concerns about sticky gas pedals — even though NHTSA ultimately concluded sticky gas pedals were not a safety problem.
Saturday Night Live had a field day with Barra’s scripted answers. But Barra and her lawyers were guided by the Toyota precedent. Such is the farce of Congressional “fact-finding” hearings.
Barra even played along with the “Old GM-new GM” ruse in order to simplify the narrative. “We had more of a cost culture,” she said stressing that GM was “changing to a customer culture that focuses on safety and quality.” The media ate it up even as the evidence of the Cobalt’s three prior recalls shows the company has always been concerned about safety.
Quality? Well, according to JD Power, that’s where GM has some catching up to do.