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GM, NHTSA sidestep most recall queries

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If you are into boxing at all, you know that a good fighter can bob, weave and move around so that his challenger never lays a glove on him.

The boxing world, believe it or not, could take some lessons from General Motors (GM) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) after their performances this week in front of House and Senate Committees in Washington DC that are investigating the performance of the automaker and the safety agency in the wake of NHTSA's order adding more than 3 million cars to a safety recall that already stood at about 3.2 million vehicles.

6.5 million vehicles

So far, Ken Zino of autoinfo.com, put the total number of vehicles ordered recalled is 6.5 million.

To date, Zino noted, Mary Barra, GM's first woman CEO, who traveled to Washington DC to testify before the House and Senate Transportation Committees, and another administration major official, also quizzed over the recall issue, David Friedman, NHTSA administrator, managed to do a great job of bobbing and weaving as members of the House and Senate panels hammered them on the recalls.

As boxers would say, “they never laid a glove on me.” It's true, in reality, the people who exist inside the Beltway “never laid a glove” on either one of them, but they scored points with the public.

The public heard, read, saw or watched via the Internet or on the nightly news some very interesting information.

Long-time issue

For example, it was common knowledge before 2001 that there were issues with the Delphi ignition system. Interestingly, at the time, Delphi was a GM subsidiary, so in all likelihood, GM and its other subsidiaries know of this issue before NHTSA received information on it. NHTSA would have received its first information on the issue after an accident where there was a death or injury. There have been 13 deaths attributed to this issue.

So, the question that people are asking now is like the famous line asked in whodunnits since they first appeared: “How long have you known about (fill in) and when did you first do it?”

Or, to put it another way, since both GM and NHTSA have known about this issue since before 2001, how long before 2001 did they learn of it and why did they wait so long before anything was done about it?

As if that wasn't enough, Delphi was spun off to a private venture, further complicating matters. Already convoluted, Delphi should have kept GM closely in the product development loop, which they apparently had not. Once they had found the fix to the problem, Delphi should immediately asked GM for a new part number as the ignition module had had some major internal remodeling completed and its code had also changed.

Same part numbers

Instead, Zino noted in his autoinfo.com piece, Delphi just continued using the same part number, as if they were still part of GM itself. This, of course, provides GM with a convenient shield early in this issue, however, once NHTSA was brought into play, the issues should have changed.

Chiefly, Delphi should have given GM the information about the module, as well as NHTSA. The big but here is, but they didn't.

How could GM or NHTSA have known, though, is a fair question to ask when one learns that Delphi never changed the part number, although it should have discussed the fix with GM and then it should have asked it for a new part number?

Zino asked in his autoinfo.com piece how an independent company make a major change to a major part and then continue to use the original part number? He answered his own question by saying that since Delphi was no longer a part of GM, it could not.

Here's where it becomes even more interesting. Zino noted that there were internal GM documents indicating that it had known about the problem before NHTSA joined the fray.

Apparently, GM was finally feeling the heat on the ignition problem because it indicated there was a link between the ignition failure and the failure of the airbag system to deploy.

Serious issue with fatalities

By now, this had become a very serious issue as non-deployment or improper deployment or slight deployment delays of the air bag system could lead to serious injury or death – the toll is now 13 on the ignition system issue.

Although NHTSA won this war by forcing GM to issue a recall it didn't want anyone to know about, it was not a huge win as the cost was high in human life.

Meantime, NHTSA was on a bit of a winning streak with GM. Since it had pushed the world's number two automaker into into issuing a safety-related recall on the ignition, it also found out about the GM power steering issue.

Second issue

Although it never informed buyers or the federal agency of the power steering issue, General Motors proved it knows how to shoot itself in its corporate feet. The power steering motor or servos failed and when that happens it is like trying steer an 18-wheeler with a kitchen knife. It can be done, but it is almost physically impossible for smaller drivers to do this. More than 1million GM vehicles were recalled. GM tried to fall back on its tried-and-successful defense; it was not technically required to notify NHTSA or the public because no injuries or fatalities occurred due to the issue. NHTSA issued the recall and now GM is facing a 6.5-million vehicle recall that could keep growing.

Zino and the congressional panels had one central concern that speaks to this whole issue: “Why did it take more than a decade to do anything about this safety issue?”

No one has delivered a good answer yet.

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