Transcript: Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Q&A with GM CEO Mary Barra on the ignition switch recall

Partial transcript of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minnesota) Q&A with General Motors CEO Mary Barra on “Examining the GM Recall and NHTSA’s Defect Investigation Process”. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance’s hearing was held on April 2, 2014:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
…Ms. Barra, one of the families involved in this is a young woman who was killed named Natasha Weigel from Albert Lea, Minnesota. I met with her dad, Doug, yesterday. I talked to her mom’s husband yesterday. And this young girl was in Wisconsin. She was in a Cobalt with some friends and suddenly the ignition went off and the car barreled 71-miles-per-hour into trees and two of the girls were killed, including Natasha. And she was a hockey player, a young girl.

And one of the letters that her dad gave me that she wrote to him just a few months before she died, she talked about – this is her words “I wouldn’t be the good goalie I am now if it wasn’t for you, Dad, standing behind the net behind the glass. Just knowing you were there made me trust myself better, and I definitely felt secure to know you have my back.”

And I think you understand that these families need someone to have their back. They want to have the backs of their kids – at least the memories of their kids. And I think a lot of what this is about, including a major change in process that we clearly need in GM and probably in the transportation field in terms of how we look at these things.

And as you look at this internal evidence, I think the things that we need to know, including why did GM open numerous internal reviews but not elevate the issue to a formal investigation until 2011, why was GM’s management not aware of critical decisions being made related to the defect, did GM dispose the issue during the company’s bankruptcy proceedings?

These are the things that are on the minds of the American people.

And then on the government side with NHTSA – did NHTSA have sufficient resources to do a prompt investigation, did NHTSA have the technical expertise and technology to evaluate this growing evidence? I know in our case and the Weigel family, a complaint was made with NHTSA way back when Natasha was killed. What could NHTSA have done differently as it was receiving complaints over this very long period of time?

So my first question of you is really about this internal process, and I’d like to know what factors as we’ve just seen these recalls with more and more of them rolling out over the last few weeks, what factors did GM consider when it’s examining whether or not to elevate a potential safety defect to a higher level of review?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
In today’s General Motors, we look at – I mean, as an incident is learned about and it can come from any source – it can come from our dealers, it can come from testing, it can come from outside, it can come from a claim being made. And it gets assigned to a team of knowledgeable engineers, they investigate and try to understand what’s happening, try to understand if there’s an incident what it could cause. Then it gets reviewed by a team – a cross-functional team. And then it goes through a final group to make a decision. That’s the process that’s used.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
And what’s the single most important factor that the company considers when looking at whether to do a recall?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
The most important thing is if there’s a safety issue. And we’ve actually over the last few years made great strides to quickly get information and get into the field as quickly as possible. If you look at the data right now at General Motors, we actually do more recalls than anyone with smaller population because we’re trying to get – if we find something, we’re trying to get in and fix it as quick as we can.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
And do you think there will be further recalls to come here? Different models?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I believe that as we find problems large or small, we will do the right thing, and if it requires a recall, we will do a recall.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
Okay. Now, we have an issue of the claims with many of these families that been involved. Do you think that families have equal opportunity to compensation regardless of whether and when GM went through bankruptcy? If you could also describe – you just announced this appointment of Mr. Feinberg, how this would work so that these families would get their compensation.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
We hired Mr. Feinberg late last week. We have our first meeting with Mr. Feinberg on Friday. It’s open right now. He has guided us in the different things that we need to consider. Again, as I’ve said, we have civic and we have legal responsibilities. We are going to work through those. I anticipate based on the timeline he’s given us, it will take about 60 days. That’s the timeline he’s told us to plan for as we explore and look at all the different options. We’ve not made any decisions yet. All options are still open. But I don’t have a decision to that.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
So do you think that these families should be able to be compensated regardless of the bankruptcy issue?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
That’s why we hired Mr. Feinberg to work through this issue.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
…What does GM have to do to regain the American public’s trust?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
We have to work everyday, and I am 150% committed to it as is my team, to make sure we are putting the safest and highest quality vehicles on the road across the global. And that’s what we’ll tirelessly to do, and that’s what the men and women of General Motors want to do.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
…In your testimony, you mentioned the steps GM has taken in terms of the recall. Because the recall focuses on model year vehicles built way back in 2003 to 2007, I wonder how many of these vehicle are now on their second or third owners and if this is creating challenges to reach these owners and if there’s anything more that can be done?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
One of the things we would very much support is some type of database – I don’t know the right agency to manage it – where we would have the latest owners attached to the VINs. What we do when we have this issue, because we want to get second, third, however many owners there – is we go to Polk, where registration data is kept, and that’s how we get the latest registration. But if there were something that allowed, you know, if there was a master database as such that you always knew what VIN and who was the registered owner, that would be incredibly helpful.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
Okay. And this would be something from the Department of Transportation –

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Or NHTSA – I’m not sure which agency would do that but that would be something I think would be very beneficial.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
Okay. We should approach them about that on the next questions.

Ms. Barra, GM has received – some of my colleagues have gone over this – consumer complaints related to the faulty switch for years, evidence back to 2011. Internally, what we’ve learned is that the company conducted reviews, issued service bulletins to dealers on how to advise customers on the problem, and even approve re-designs of the ignition switches. But none of this was ever made public and as we know, we didn’t get this formal investigation by 2011. Was it that GM management felt that they could handle this internally and make these changes? I’m just trying to understand the reasoning, and I know you’re doing this investigation but –

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I’m trying to understand it as well because it took way too long. I understand that if it had been handled more quickly – once there is a safety issue, it should never have a business case that goes against it in any part of the decision-making. When we go forward now, there isn’t any. So I am as disturbed as you. I want to understand, and I commit to you I will make change of both people and process.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
Okay. Delphi Automotive, the company that produced the ignition switches that are linked to this defect has informed congressional investigators that GM approved the original part in 2002 even though it didn’t meet GM’s specification for torque performance. Do you think it met those specifications?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
It – I understand that there’s documentation that exists that says that it doesn’t and that’s what I have to understand why that happened.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
And then last – you mentioned in your testimony that you had name a new vice president for global vehicle safety. I think that sounds like a pretty good idea right now. But I was surprised there wasn’t already a person high up in the company dedicated solely to safety. Will the person in the position be involved in key decisions related to safety that are made by upper management?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
This person will have free rein and have input, have a team and have access to all information across. We’re going to be investing in more resources for this individual so they can use the right data analytic tools to sometimes put the pieces together more quickly. He will sit on or head the vehicle development for the entire globe, his staff, and he’ll meet with me on a monthly basis and meet with our board on a quarterly basis.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
And how are you going to measure if it’s working or not? What his success is in that position?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Again, I’ll look to make sure how quickly when we learn of an issue, how quickly we understand it and implement change and work with NHTSA and take the necessary steps all the way up to and including a safety recall.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
And do other automobile companies have a person in place like this? A position in place like this?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I haven’t read across the other OEMs to look at that.

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