By Tom Krisher
and Dee-Ann Durbin
WASHINGTON: The fix for a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 traffic deaths would have cost just 57 cents, members of Congress said Tuesday as they demanded answers from General Motors’ new CEO on why the automaker took 10 years to recall cars with the defect.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill before a House subcommittee, GM’s Mary Barra acknowledged under often testy questioning that the company took too long to act. She promised changes at GM that would prevent such a lapse from happening again.
“If there’s a safety issue, we’re going to make the right change and accept that,” said Barra, who became CEO in January and almost immediately found herself thrust into one of the biggest product safety crises Detroit has ever seen.
But as relatives of the crash victims looked on intently, she admitted that she didn’t know why it took years for the dangerous defect to be announced. And she deflected many questions about what went wrong, saying an internal investigation is underway.
Since February, GM has recalled 2.6 million cars — mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions — over the faulty switch, which can cause the engine to cut off in traffic, disabling the power steering, power brakes and air bags and making it difficult to control the vehicle.
The automaker said new switches should be available starting April 7.
Barra announced that GM has hired Kenneth Feinberg — who handled the fund for the victims of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill — to explore ways to compensate victims of accidents in the GM cars. Barra stopped short of saying GM would establish such a fund.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., held up a switch for one of the cars and said a small spring inside it failed to provide enough force, causing engines to turn off when they went over a bump.
DeGette showed how easy it was for a light set of car keys to move the ignition out of the “run” position.
GM has said that in 2005, company engineers proposed solutions to the switch problem, but the automaker concluded that none represented “an acceptable business case.”
“Documents provided by GM show that this unacceptable cost increase was only 57 cents,” DeGette said.
The 57 cents is just the cost of the replacement switch. The figure does not include the labor costs involved in installing the new part.
Barra testified that the fix to the switch, if undertaken in 2007, would have cost GM about $100 million, compared with “substantially” more now.
Under questioning, she said the automaker’s decision not to make the fix because of cost considerations was “disturbing” and unacceptable.
Some current GM car owners and relatives of those who died in crashes were also in Washington seeking answers. The group attended the hearing after holding a news conference demanding action against GM and stiffer legislation.
Owners of the recalled cars can ask dealers for a loaner vehicle while waiting for the replacement part. Barra said GM has provided more than 13,000 loaners.