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The new head of General Motors goes to Capitol Hill tomorrow, and she'll be there to answer a classic Washington question: What did GM know, and when did the company know it? And you could also add this question: Why did no one act sooner? It all has to do with a safety defect linked to at least 13 deaths and a 2.6 million vehicle recall. NPR's Sonari Glinton has been looking back at the events that led up to GM's current crisis.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When you think about the recent history of General Motors, there's one car that sort of symbolizes the problems of the old GM. It's the Chevy Cobalt, the topic of about a half-dozen investigations. And even if more than a million Cobalts weren't being recalled, they would still have a bad rep for not being quality vehicles. Scott Oldham with Edmunds.com says that's hindsight.
SCOTT OLDHAM: At the time, in the context of what GM was making before the Cobalt, it was seen, for the most part, as a giant leap forward.
GLINTON: Oldham remembers driving the Cobalt at a test facility when it was being launched. You see, car companies have these test drives where they line up a bunch of new cars and analysts and journalists can drive the cars and talk to engineers and executives. On this particular day, Oldham was driving on a track with an engineer in the passenger seat.
OLDHAM: And I remember coming up to a curve and I moved my foot. And as I moved my foot, my knee kind of pinned this key fob between my knee and the steering column. And, I don't know, when I hit the brake, you know, my leg moved down and it basically pulled the key down and shut the car off.
GLINTON: The systems that were connected to the engine just stopped working.
OLDHAM: There was this moment of panic where I said, oh, my God, you know, the steering isn't working, you know - what? And we - I got the car slowed down and pulled to the side. You know, catastrophe was avoided.
GLINTON: While Oldham and the engineer tried to figure out what happened, about 10 more miles later, it happened again. Finally, they realized what was going on.
OLDHAM: We even sat on the side of the road, I recall, and I would start the car and then just, you know, with my hand, just pull down on that key fob just ever so slightly, you know, just enough. And sure enough, I could turn the car off. And we looked at each other, I go, that seems like a little bit of a problem.
GLINTON: That was in 2004. And according to documents released on Sunday, GM engineers received reports about problems like this and held meetings in 2005. Engineers decided against the fix because it would take too long and cost too much money. A couple months later, the company looked into another fix. That plan was scratched as well, though dealers were notified of a potential problem. All of this while General Motors was hemorrhaging money, losing billions of dollars. Here's then-CEO Rick Wagner in the fall of 2005, announcing plans to close nine factories and cut 30,000 jobs.
RICK WAGNER: These actions are necessary for General Motors to get its cost in line with our major global competitors. In short, they're an essential part of our plan to return our North American operations to profitability as soon as possible.
GLINTON: The first death related to the faulty ignition switch problem would occur that same year. In 2007, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, would begin to connect the dots with that first death and the faulty ignition switches. No investigation was launched. Joan Claybrook is a former head of NHTSA and now a critic of the agency. She's president emeritus of Public Citizen, a consumer rights group. Claybrook says NHTSA and the auto industry have developed a very cozy relationship that includes a revolving door between car makers and the regulator.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: If you're at NHTSA and you want to get a more higher paying job and you want to go to one of the other companies and they come in and request something from the agency, you're not going to be the hard task master. You're not going to be the cop on the beat. You're going to be very gentle on that company because you want them to hire you.
GLINTON: Claybrook says the problem could be as simple as people at the agency doing their jobs poorly.
CLAYBROOK: Government officials are, by their nature, cautious. And they have a lot of power, and so they don't want to be accused of abusing their power. But they are cautious in part because they don't want to be criticized.
GLINTON: What government officials knew and what GM knew has a bearing on about a half dozen investigations, but it could have a bearing on victims. Who is liable for defects is complicated in part by GM's bankruptcy. If the accidents occurred before the old GM went under, they don't necessarily transfer to the new company. John Pottow specializes in bankruptcy at the University of Michigan's School of Law.
JOHN POTTOW: So if you had a problem with your car, and GM knew that there were cars out there with problems on them but didn't tell the public, then those people could come forward now, especially if they were injured or even join a class of injured people, and sue the company.
GLINTON: Lawsuits may be the least of the problems for GM's new CEO, Mary Barra. She faces two tests. Can she separate the old company from the new before Congress? And also, tomorrow is the day when car sales numbers come out. It's the first sign of how much the car-buying public has been and will be listening. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.