Rough road ahead for GM as US Congress plots safety probe

Mar 22 2014, 03:19 IST
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SummaryThe US congressional investigation into General Motors automobile defects will bring aggressive scrutiny to a company with powerful lobbying clout and strong ties on Capitol Hill.

The US congressional investigation into General Motors automobile defects will bring aggressive scrutiny to a company with powerful lobbying clout and strong ties on Capitol Hill.

GM’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles, due to an ignition-switch problem linked to 12 fatalities, has put the Detroit automaker in Congress’ cross hairs, with potentially dramatic hearings kicking off in April.

GM chief executive Mary Barra is scheduled to testify on April 1 to a US House of Representatives panel investigating the ignition problem. In what could be a preview of such testimony, Barra on Monday declared in a video that “something went wrong with our process” and “terrible things happened”.

The handling of the defect by GM, which first noticed it in 2001, and federal regulators is the top priority of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to aides.

Congressional investigations into consumer safety issues always have the potential of becoming a public relations nightmare for companies at the centre of the probes.

In early 2010, for example, Congress looked into sudden, unintended acceleration problems Toyota owners had been reporting for years, which were linked to five deaths.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will have broad powers to investigate the actions of GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, including the ability to subpoena witnesses and documents. The panel has also invited NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman to testify at the April 1 hearing.

The session is the first in what will likely be a series of congressional hearings.

GM customers could have dramatic stories to tell, since the ignition issue turned off engines and disabled airbags in cars moving at high speed, resulting in deadly accidents.

One committee aide said nearly a dozen of the panel’s investigators were working on finding out why flawed ignitions in older Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other GM models were allowed to stay in the cars for so long with owners uninformed.

“The broad question the committee wants to answer is, ‘Is this a problem that could have been prevented or detected any earlier than it was?’” said one House Energy and Commerce aide.

GM has long had allies in Congress, most notably Michigan representative John Dingell, the former committee chair. But the hearings will not be the first time the auto giant has been roughed up by lawmakers.

In 2012, a House of Representatives committee looked into an unrelated safety issue: Car battery fires in GM’s new hybrid electric car, the

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