General Motors CEO Mary Barra appeared in Washington D.C. on Tuesday to answer questions pertaining to the company's , which now covers 2.6 million vehicles. It did not go well, even by the low expectation of congressional hearings.
Barra repeatedly deflected inquires about specific details regarding the ignition switch issue, stating only that there is an ongoing investigation within GM. Yet most of these questions should be fairly easy to answer. Barra (and GM's lawyers) may have decided it was best for her to say nothing on Capitol Hill, but GM is in the middle of a public relations nightmare, and to minimize the long-term damage to its reputation the company needs to open and honest about everything that led to the current situation. These are the most pressing questions General Motors needs to answer:
Why Were Early Changes Rejected?
GM knew about the ignition switch problem, at least in the 2003 Saturn Ion, as far back as 2001. It came up again in 2005 after the launch of the Chevrolet Cobalt. This is the one of the most damning items in the recall timeline: the fact that GM closed an internal investigation because "none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case."
To Mary Barra's credit, she repeatedly stated before the House Subcommittee that the business case does not trump safety, and that sort of action is unacceptable. But Barra's and GM's current stance doesn't explain why the company rejected paying for a change back then. To clear up this issue, GM needs to explain the entire process of the internal probe, including what went against protocol and what steps the company has taken to ensure such a decision isn't made again.
Why Would You Accept an Out-of-Spec Part?
Executives from Delphi—the part supplier for the ignition switch—told Congressional investigators that GM was told as early as 2002 that the design fell below the specification for torque performance. That's the amount of twisting force needed to move the key.
This is disturbing for two reasons. First, if Delphi informed GM this early in the timeline, then GM knew something was wrong with the switches even before the company's first internal investigation. And second, as Michigan Representative John Dingell put it, "I've never been part of an organization where a part doesn't meet the specs and we go ahead and buy it anyway." It's easy to say this should have been given more attention now that the recall is such a big news item, but it's hard to understand why this wasn't cause for alarm even then.
What's Up With Ray DeGiorgio?
Key to the GM ignition switch recall, and one reason why the recall has expanded so widely, is that the ignition switch part was changed in 2006 but no new part number is issued. This is a cardinal sin in engineering world. If a change to a part is warranted, the new identification is necessary to keep track of the process. , the change was authorized by Ray DeGiorgio, lead design engineer for the Cobalt ignition switch. But DeGiorgio denied knowledge of the change in an April 2013 deposition, according to the same story.
According to Barra, DeGiorgio is still employed by General Motors, but the CEO declined to elaborate further on the engineer's role in the design change. Here's another place where GM needs to come clean and disclose the process that led to the design change, why the part number wasn't changed, and what DeGiorgio's role was. GM could end up looking negligent here, but the appearance of a cover-up looks even worse.
Will Full Details of Investigation Come Out?
During her testimony, Barra announced that GM has brought on attorney Kenneth Feinberg to investigate the ignition switch debacle and recommend actions. Feinberg previously administered compensations funds for 9/11 victims, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the Boston Marathon bombings. This the "investigation" that Barra repeatedly referenced in her answers in the hearing. But in later questioning, the GM CEO would not commit to sharing the full results of the investigation with the public, instead stating, "I will share what's appropriate."
There's no doubt that Barra was being cautious in her testimony to avoid any statements that could get her or GM into further turmoil, but this stands out as a mistake. Full disclosure is the best path forward towards the company repairing its reputation.