Transcript: Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s Q&A with NHTSA & DOT officials on GM’s ignition switch recall

Partial transcript of Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Connecticut) Q&A with NHSTA Acting Administrator David Friedman and Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel 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):
…I, first of all, want to thank you for your service to our nation and now for your service at NHTSA as Inspector General. Mr. Friedman, thank you for your service at NHTSA.

Let me ask you, Mr. Friedman, I take it from what you said yesterday and what you’ve said here today that GM concealed material significant information from NHTSA. Is that correct?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
We are very concerned that they didn’t provide us with sufficient information. The –

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Well, I know you’re concerned. We’re all concerned. Did they conceal information insofar as you know?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
That is exactly the subject of an open investigation that we have into General Motors, and if we find that they did violate their responsibilities to report information and to act quickly, we will hold them accountable. But because that’s an open investigation, I don’t want to pre-judge that. But I am very concerned that they did not provide us with part number changes. I’m concerned that they had conversations with suppliers about the algorithms and we weren’t aware of –

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
In your view, was the faulty ignition switch a defect?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
With what we know now, very clearly it was a defect.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Was it a design defect?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
I’m not sure – it was clearly a defect. It was a defect that represents an unreasonable risk to safety. The key itself – and it’s – from my understanding of the situation, it’s a combination of factors. The key itself with low torque could turn and it was clearly something about their algorithm that would appears to disable the airbags in that case. That, to be honest, doesn’t make sense to me because if the vehicle had been moving –

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
…Shut off the car which in turn disabled the airbag, is that correct?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
I don’t know if that’s – we’re actually asking them very specific questions to understand that. Power loss in a vehicle in a crash is not uncommon. There are capacitors built into these airbag systems to ensure that they have power in the case of losing power.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
…Let me just ask you very directly. It is your testimony today that it was a defect.

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Based on what we now know, absolutely.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
And defects are supposed to be reported. Correct?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Absolutely.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Let me ask you, General, I know that you’ve made various recommendations about changes and reforms at NHTSA. And looking at your testimony, I understand that many of those recommendations have been made, correct?

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
Yes, Senator. The recommendations have been made. NHTSA has taken steps to address nearly all of those. The most significant one still outstanding has to do with the workforce assessment.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Right. But I noted that in one of the paragraphs of your testimony, page 6, you say “We believe the enhanced processes NHTSA put in place to address our 2011 recommendations will put the agency in a better position to identify and investigate vehicle safety defects to the extent that ODI uses and applies these process enhancements when conducting its analysis and investigation.”

The way I interpret that sentence is you know they’ve said they’ve adopted the recommendations but you don’t know in fact whether they’re doing them.

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
Precisely. We don’t know how effective these new process enhancements will be. We believe based on our assessment of NHTSA’s processes as of the 2010, 2011 time frame using the Toyota case as a case study if you will, assessing NHTSA’s processes and what we recommended to improve those that the steps that NHTSA took should help. Now are they a silver bullet and would they have avoided or prevented any of the problems that we might see with GM, that we don’t know.

But what we do want to answer now is the mail from the Secretary where he asked us specifically whether NHTSA acted in an expeditious and timely manner to identify and pursue safety defects covered by the GM recalls and whether NHTSA had and currently has sufficient resources, processes, and data available to it to fulfill its safety function with respect to the recall. So we want to see how it’s being applied.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
Are you involved as you were in Toyota in a criminal investigation of GM?

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
Senator, I can’t confirm or deny that a criminal investigation is underway. Based on our Toyota experience –

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
You were involved in the Toyota criminal investigation?

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
Absolutely. We were critical to the criminal investigation of Toyota. Our agents were identified by name a couple weeks ago by the Attorney General at his press conference where he announced the forfeiture and we have gained a tremendous amount of expertise in this area.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut):
And let me ask you finally – I’d ask both of you to support the legislation that Sen. Markey and I have introduced. Are you willing to do so?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Senator, I’m very open to working with yourself and Sen. Markey on how to make sure that we can best move forward and how we can improve and very open to further discussions on your legislation.

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
Sir, if I may. My response is a little bit more complicated and I will apologize in advance. I’m sure you’ll appreciate that as an Inspector General my presumption is that more transparency is almost always better than less. By virtue of the fact that I serve as DOT Inspector General, by statute and by executive order, I served on the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the Government Accountability and Transparency Board, so transparency is literally our middle name. However, I am fully cognizant of the policy factors – the considerations on the other side regarding confidential business information and so forth.

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