By on September 17, 2014

David Friedman

It was a long day for David Friedman and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during congressional testimony Tuesday, admitting before a Senate panel that his agency has more work to do to improve itself, and that General Motors made “incredibly poor decisions” as far as recalls were concerned.

Automotive News reports Friedman and the NHTSA came under harsh criticism before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee’s consumer protection subcommittee during this second round of testimony. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri made the deputy administrator aware of the panel’s overall frustration with the excuses for why the NHTSA did not act swiftly in forcing GM to recall vehicles affected by an out-of-spec ignition switch now linked to 19 deaths and 31 injuries.

In turn, Friedman deflected criticism of the agency by placing the blame upon the automaker, proclaiming the execs “were more worried about [the NHTSA] getting information about problems than they were about actually fixing problems.” He added that a “new normal” has since been established upon all automakers, whereupon any defect is immediately reported to the agency, and that it would have “zero tolerance” on those who fail “to act quickly and aggressively” on reporting such flaws.

Regarding the original case, Friedman said that his agency lacked “ample information” in 2007 to determine whether or not a defect was to be found in the aforementioned ignition switch, despite a report by a House committee issued earlier in the day stating the opposite.

After testimony, Sen. McCaskill stated she found Friedman’s statements troubling, proclaiming he was more concerned with rebutting the news media than with taking responsibility for his and his agency’s role in the GM recall crisis.

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12 Comments on “Friedman: GM, Not NHTSA, Most To Blame For Recall Crisis...”

  • avatar

    “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” – Unknown

  • avatar

    I thought some of the remarks directed at the agency were unfair. Some of them chided them for thinking that the airbags would be powered for a little while after the ignition is cut, but some design changes meant they weren’t.

    They are the NHTSA, not the Automobile Design Minutiae Verification Bureau. They cannot anticipate every boneheaded decision and villainous treachery a manufacturer might come up with.

    • 0 avatar

      Huh? Their job is exactly about minutiae, and putting pressure on the automakers to correct said minutiae. Ignoring an evident problem while the bodies stack up, despite ample evidence of an airbag issue, is inexcusable. Heads should roll.

      • 0 avatar

        His testimony is self-serving, but I think it is reasonable to maintain that they don’t have the resources. Out of 8 million cars, there have been 131 fatality claims and will probably be more. Every one a tragedy. Address the cover-up – this is not an undiscovered design mistake – it is willfully ignoring a problem their own supplier made them aware of. The heads that should roll are in Detroit, not DC. I can’t imagine a NHTSA big enough, with enough competent technical people, and with enough auditors, and with enough power, to catch a problem like this.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Agreed, sirwired.

      Blaming NHTSA for GM’s faults is like suing the police when your house is broken into.

      NHTSA’s mission is not to be a design checker in GM’s engineering activities.

  • avatar

    I cannot remember who made this statement,”No one in Washington is accountable for much of anything”. You are seeing this play out now for NHTSA before the US Senate. But one might ask, where are the Senators now to offer the same harsh criticism of foreign policy, as another administration is trying to lie the US into another war?

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Interesting that Senator McCaskill actually gets the real question: If your agency doesn’t get a handle on things like this, what good is it? And why should taxpayers pay for it? It is a question that is asked too infrequently of the Washington bureaucracy.

    GM’s culpability is irrelevant to that question.

    • 0 avatar

      NHTSA accepted a lot of GM’s explanations for what was wrong, and I can see how the early data would have supported that position. Ultimately, they rely heavily on statistical data of incidents after the fact and on consumer complaints to identify problems.

      What complicates this is that many of these crashes involved driver negligence. GM was obviously happy to push responsibility off to the drivers, but it should have become clear that there is no excuse for ignitions to stop working, irrespective of the blood alcohol content or driving talents of the person behind the wheel.

      NHTSA is understaffed, and it literally can’t afford to fight every battle. If we want more enforcement, then we need to be willing to pay for it.

      • 0 avatar

        Part of the reason the NHTSA did not act swiftly is that the switches were installed in millions of vehicles over several years about a decade ago, and no pattern of failure emerged until pretty recently. After the Toyota accelerator snafu, you can hardly blame them for holding off before demanding a recall based on somewhat nebulous data. Then add GM obfuscation on top of that.

        Yes, the NHTSA can do better, hopefully the hearings will focus on improving processes and systems instead of just finger-pointing. I’d like a pony too.

  • avatar

    This is a pretty incomplete post compared to sources like Reuters. NHTSA has only 51 investigators. However, if they could argue for funds like EPA, then they could expand into frivolous areas like engine design. Next thing you know, vehicle manufacturers could be forced to use an EPA designed combustion chamber. Just what we all need – a Government 4 valve head.

    Think I’m kidding? From Society of Automotive Engineers July 23 2014.

    ” As part of its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel economy for model years 2017 through 2025 light-duty vehicles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun developing an advanced test engine to demonstrate fuel-saving and emissions-reducing technologies. The test engine is intended to help establish the feasibility of meeting fuel standards through improvements to combustion chamber geometries, fuel injection strategies, fuel composition, valve timing, and intake conditions.

    In development of the engine, the EPA is using ANSYS FORTÉ CFD software, giving its engineers the ability to quickly and inexpensively make multiple design iterations. ANSYS acquired FORTÉ as part of its acquisition of Reaction Design earlier this year.”

    This is incredibly ridiculous. As if the EPA boy engineers know as much as the real engine designers at established manufacurers. Now they’ll start sticking their oar in and creating a fuss on issues they don’t understand the basics in.

    I mean, WTF is going on?

  • avatar

    The NHTSA is between a rock and a hard place. If they had used their authority to force GM they’d be accused of onerous regulation. Since they didn’t they’re suffering accusations of being worthless and inept. A bureaucracy is very much a “pick your battles” environment, and GM has a lot of powerful backers.

    Once there was enough evidence (and unfortunately enough deaths) that the ignition switches were undeniably the cause, the NHTSA had the evidence and drive to intervene. Politically the NHTSA had to wait for GM’s incompetence to destroy the will of their supporters.

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