General Motors CEO Mary Barra and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acting administrator David Friedman both testified before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee in the first of two congressional hearings focused on GM’s 2014 recall of an ignition switch whose issues the automaker nor the agency chose to act upon in a swift manner in the decade leading up to the recall.
The Detroit News reports the hearing between the committee and Barra lasted two and a half hours, and while the atmosphere was calm for the most part, the elusive answers Barra gave to some questions proved frustrating to the bipartisan committee. A possible reason for the vague responses provided by Barra: Any incorrect answers could come back to haunt the company via a charge of misleading Congress by the Justice Department, who is already conducting an investigation into GM’s handling of the recall.
She also pleaded her case for patience from the federal government while the internal investigation into the recall continues, and repeatedly stood by her talking points throughout the questioning. However, when the committee asked if GM would commit to delivering the final report from the internal investigation to Congress, Barra said her company would turn over “what’s appropriate.”
Meanwhile, she revealed GM had hired attorney Kenneth Feinberg to guide the company’s executives for the next 30 to 60 days into deciding how the automaker will proceed to do “the right thing” by their customer base. Feinberg, who helped establish compensation funds for those affected by 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, may direct GM to create such a fund for affected owners whose vehicles were involved in crashes prior to the company’s bankruptcy filing in 2009, though Barra said she couldn’t commit to such a fund under questioning, opting to let Feinberg find “the best way forward.”
Following Barra’s testimony, Friedman took his turn before the House committee, defending his agency’s decision not to move forward with a formal investigation into the ignition switch issue, citing lack of data from General Motors in 2007.
He also explained that the NHTSA had voiced concerns about a number of problems GM hadn’t disclosed, such as the silent part-swap in April 2006 or the automaker’s talks with Delphi over air bags. In turn, the committee asked Friedman why his agency missed a number of red flags and failed to connect the dots in what the agency did learn from their dealings with GM. He said his agency followed proper protocol in its final decision in that there was insufficient information to press forward with a formal investigation. Friedman added that the NHTSA aims to improve this process, as well as increasing penalties for actions such as those demonstrated by GM.
The families affected by the recall witnessed the proceedings from the back of the hearing room, hoping to receive satisfactory answers from Barra as reminders of what the automaker’s poor choices had cost them hung above their heads. One of the affected, Mary Ruddy of Scranton, Penn., put it thusly:
I did not care for the answers from Ms. Barra. I thought she was very evasive, and if she’s that evasive with the United States government… then how can we expect them to be honest with the general public.
Ruddy’s husband, Leo, also bemoaned Barra’s tactics before the committee, summing up the experience as if “it was like talking to Sgt. Schultz ["Hogan's Heroes"] — ‘I know nothing.'”
The Ruddys were among the families who met with members of Congress before a press conference calling for the establishment of a victims’ compensation fund, pulling affected vehicles off the road, strengthen current auto safety legislation, and a criminal investigation of GM by the Justice Department.
Finally, though the Chevrolet Silverado was knocked off of its pedestal by Ram’s offerings since 1999, Automotive News reports the fullsize pickup and its GMC Sierra twin helped boost GM’s overall U.S. light-duty vehicle sales in March by 4 percent to 256,047 vehicles. Overall retail sales also gained in March, rising 7 percent compared to the previous year.
As for the twins, Chevrolet’s sales rose 7 percent in March while GMC experienced a 21 percent growth, all of which is setting the place for upcoming product launches later this year, according to GM U.S. vice president of sales operations Kurt McNeil:
GM’s retail sales, like the weather and the economy as a whole, have been on an improving trend since early February. We expect to see solid economic growth in the months ahead, with the job market, household income and consumer spending all showing positive signs.
It is a strong backdrop for the launch of our all-new heavy-duty pickups, large SUVs and other new products, like the Cadillac ATS coupe coming this summer.
Transaction prices also went up in March, coming out on a record average of $34,000, as well as a 5 percent increase in commercial fleet sales; fleet sales fell by 5 percent in a planned reduction by the automaker.