GM Ignition Switch Controversy Comes To Capitol Hill

General Motors CEO Mary T. Barra testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday, speaking before a House panel that is investigating how the company handled problems with its vehicles' ignition switch.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block, this week in Dallas at member station KERA.

Congress weighed in today on the massive recall of General Motors vehicles for an ignition switch problem. At least 13 deaths are blamed on the faulty switches. And House members put tough questions to GM's new CEO, Mary Barra, about why warning signs weren't heeded. Some also slammed the government's top auto safety regulator for failing to take action.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM MURPHY: What we have here is a failure to communicate and the results were deadly - a failure to communicate both between and within GM and NHTSA.

BLOCK: That's Republican Tim Murphy of the House of Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. In a few minutes, we'll talk with a family member of one of the crash victims. But first to NPR's Don Gonyea, who has been following the hearing. And, Don, the first big question of the day was why it took so long for General Motors to recall a defective part. Did Mary Barra have an answer to that?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: She did not, to considerable frustration on the part of the subcommittee. She did pledge repeatedly that that's what she wants to know as well, but that GM's investigation is just getting under way. Again, she said she just heard about this two months ago. She's only been the head of General Motors for 10 weeks. Today, though, one thing she really, really wanted to do was demonstrate concern.

MARY BARRA: My sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends who lost their lives or were injured.

BLOCK: So that's GM's new CEO, Mary Barra. Don, remind us what the issue was with these ignition switches.

GONYEA: Well, it's so simple and that's what makes it so scary. Your keys are in the ignition, you're driving along, and if your knee bumps the keys that are hanging there, it can create enough pressure where the car just shuts off. It goes into that accessory mode where you might normally run the radio or the heater or something when the car is not running. It would go to that. It would shut off the vehicle and the vehicle would lose power, and the airbags would also not work, which was really a problem.

BLOCK: Yeah. Now Barra was pressed about the fact that the ignition switch apparently never met the company's standards. How did that go?

GONYEA: Exactly. And she did kind of get into engineer-speak a little bit. She said, well, just because it doesn't meet the standards we set doesn't mean it's defective. And a lot of the panel members went back and forth with her on that. But again, you can hear the frustration here. Listen to Congressman Joe Barton of Texas.

REPRESENTATIVE JOE BARTON: Why in the world would a company with a stellar reputation, General Motors, purchase a part that did not meet its own specifications?

BARRA: I want to know that as much as you do. It is not the way we do business today. It's not the way we want to design and engineer vehicles for our customers.

BLOCK: Don, there was also a new development today, that Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney who's handled a number of high-profile victim compensation cases, has been named as a consultant here. What's his role going to be?

GONYEA: Well, he's certainly a highly regarded, respected figure. He'll be working with General Motors. And he has worked with, you know, victims of the 9/11 attacks, of the BP oil spill. He's a credible figure. And his role, I think, is to give credibility to the process to let people know that GM is serious and does want to do the right thing.

BLOCK: And briefly, Don, is this recall having an impact on GM's bottom line?

GONYEA: Well, it will. It'll cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And that's even before we get to questions of liability. But so far, it doesn't seem to have registered in a big way with car buyers. General Motors announced late today that its sales were up 7 percent last month.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Don Gonyea. Don, thanks.

GONYEA: Pleasure.

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