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

Partial transcript of Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Connecticut) 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. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
…You and I have met before, haven’t we?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Yes, we have.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
And I’m going to tell you now what I said then which is that I have enormous admiration and respect for your career, what you’ve accomplished, and the leadership that you’ve provided to GM. And I also have enormous respect for your company. It’s an iconic, enormously important manufacturing company, and it produces terrific products generally.

And I know your company here by a regiment of lawyers and a battalion of public relation consultants and that your breaking with the culture is a very difficult step.

Let me with all due respect suggest three steps – at least three steps – that you can take if you really want to break with the culture and show the leadership that I think is worthy of GM and worthy of your leadership.

Number one, commit to a compensation fund that will do justice for the victims of the defects that killed people in your cars.

Number two, warn drivers who are currently behind the wheels of those cars that they should not drive it until they’re repaired because they’re unsafe.

And number three, support the measure that Sen. Markey and I have proposed that would improve the system of safety accountability going forward. It would require more disclosure to the public and better transparency and reporting by the car manufacturers in case of defects to the federal agencies.

And the federal agencies have a substantial share of the blame in this instance.

I think it’s pretty much incontrovertible that GM knew about this lethal safety defect, failed to correct it, and failed to tell its customers about it, and then concealed it from the courts and the United States.

So, I think these steps are appropriate, and I hope that you will adopt them despite whatever the complexities that you see and whatever the advice is that you’re getting.

And I want to know, first of all, what is it that Ken Feinberg has to work through to convince you that there should be compensation to these victims?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Ken Feinberg has just indicated to us that as he goes in, he interviews a lot of people, tries to get a complete understanding of the process –

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
But he is not…he’s not a bankruptcy expert. And right now, GM is still in courts across the country invoking a blanket shield from liability that is the result of its deception and concealment to the federal government. I opposed it at the time as Attorney General for the state of Connecticut not foreseeing that the material adverse fact being concealed was a gigantic as this one. But why not just come clean and say, “We’re going to do justice here. We’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to compensate the victims.” Knowing that money can’t erase the pain or maybe even ease it but it’s the right thing to do?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Our first step in evaluating this is to hire Mr. Feinberg and we plan to work through it with him and understand his expertise. As I’ve said, there’s civic as well as legal responsibilities and we want to be balanced and make sure we are thoughtful in what we do.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Let me go on to the next step. Let me show you the recall notice, and I’m sure you’ve seen it. It says “Your risk increases if your key ring is carrying added weight, such as more keys or a key fob or” – and I stress “or” – “your vehicle experiences rough road conditions or other jarring or impact-related events.” Even with all the weight off the key chain, doesn’t that recall notice tell you that cars should not be driven where there are rough road conditions or other kinds of potentially jarring events?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
The testing that has been done has been on our proving ground and has extensive capability where the vehicle would be jarred, and with just the key or the key in the ring, it has performed.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Is it your testimony here today that those cars are as safe as any other car on the road today?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Again, if you look across all the safety technology on vehicles from past and present, there’s variation on safety based on the technology that’s on cars today. So there’s variation with across the whole population.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Is that Cobalt car, as driven now, safe for your daughters to drive? Would you allow them behind the wheel?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I would allow my son and daughter – well, my son, because he’s the only one who’s eligible to drive if he only had the ignition key.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
So the added risk if you have only the ignition key of driving that car is zero. There’s no additional risk of driving the un-recalled Cobalt on the road?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
The testing that we’ve been done as it relates to this indicates that the weight is not – would not cause that issue.

Can I just say if someone is uncomfortable though we are providing loaners. If someone asks for a loaner, a loaner is provided.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Well, again, I would respectfully suggest that you advise your customers to get loaners rather than driving these cars.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
…Ms. Barra, we were talking about the recall notice, and I was pointing out that you said there’s no risk as long as people don’t add keys to the ignition key. Is that correct?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I said that there’s been extensive engineering analysis and testing done that demonstrates that the weight of the key or just the key in just the ring –

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Who has done the analysis?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
General Motors engineers.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Would you commit to making them available to us?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Yes.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
And would you commit to providing documents that support that analysis. Any documents in connection with that analysis?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Yes.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Thank you. Now, are you saying the recall notice is wrong. The recall notice says risk increases with rough roads or jarring events.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I think it was trying to capture the –

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Do you agree or disagree? Are you saying that the recall notice is wrong?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
No.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
So that people should not drive on rough roads or with jarring events using one of the recalled un-repaired automobiles?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I think the notice was trying to be descriptive of the situation where it’s most likely to occur. But again, the testing is related to the key.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
What would it take to change your view that people should not be driving these un-repaired recalled cars? If I came to you with 100 events of people finding that they lose power and control of their cars, would that persuade you?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
It wouldn’t take 100 events. I mean –

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
10?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I mean, it would take – I mean, my understanding is with the key or the key and the ring, the incident – this phenomenon that caused these issues will not occur. [Overlapping audio]

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
[Overlapping audio] …And there are those events, would that persuade you?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I’m not aware of any events where it was just the key or the key ring where that occurred.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
If I came to you –

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Yes, it would.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
If I came to you with the death of a young woman who went to school not far from here and was driving one of these cars un-repaired and was killed when her airbag was disabled because of this defect, would it change your view?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Sen. Blumenthal, my response is to if there’s just the key or the key in the ring, that’s the analysis that we’ve done to indicate that these vehicles are safe to drive.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
I know you’ve done that analysis. But would it change your view on whether you would recommend to your customers that this car is fine to drive – no risk – as long as you don’t add keys to the ignition?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I guess I’m not clear on what you’re asking me.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
I’m asking whether that additional information…?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
What additional information are you providing?

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
About deaths or loss of power and control over cars. Those kinds of events. In cars that have this defect that encountered rough roads or jarring events.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
Senator, if I had any data, any incidents where with just the key or the key and the ring there was any risk, I would ground these vehicles across this country.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Have you ever been in a car that has lost control over power steering, brakes?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I’ve been in a vehicle that lost power steering and power brakes.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Driving probably not in a test vehicle?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I was driving on public roads so it wasn’t a test vehicle…

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Pretty frightening.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I can be startling.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Have you spoken to families?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
I did speak to the families on Monday night.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
And you’ve mentioned GM’s civic responsibility. Don’t you believe it has a moral responsibility here to advise more strongly its customers about these potential risks?

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors:
We are going on a multi-dimension communications – letters to people. We’re monitoring social media. We have a dedicated website. We are working multiple channels to make sure we communicate with the individuals that would own these vehicles or drive these vehicles.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Well, let me just say because my time’s expired – first thanks for facing these questions. This GM is not the old GM. It’s not even the pre-2014 GM. What you’re doing now is incurring both legal and moral responsibility for the actions that you’re taking or failing to take. And I will tell you that the more I hear and see in these documents and the more I learn about what happened before the re-organization and in connection with the re-organization, the more convinced I am that GM has a real exposure to criminal liability. In fact, I think it’s likely and appropriate that GM will face prosecution based on this evidence. And I think the more that you can do as a leader of GM to come forward and do the right thing now, the better it will be for the future of the company. So I hope to continue to work with you and hope that you will review the legislation that’s been offered because going forward it can make a real difference.

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