GM CEO Mary Barra

The largest automaker in the United States, General Motors, has come under fire since recent revelations that it failed to recall 2.6 million cars, all of which had a switch problem that could disable engines, airbags, steering, and brakes. What’s made it much more disturbing is that we now know the company made the conscious decision to keep the faulty switch almost a decade ago. Even worse, we don’t know who in the company is to blame. 

In 2005, GM found that changing the problem switch would have added a dollar to the cost of each car. The additional cost was not found to be an “acceptable business case,” as per documents released by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. At least 13 people have died as a result of this decision.

So who made it? Lawmakers have begun with CEO Mary Barra, who worked her way up from engineering and staff jobs to head of global product development before becoming the head of the company. But it seems that she’s gotten stuck with the repercussions, even as she was genuinely unaware, at least in 2005, of the decision. Reuters provided a series of emails from that year, between GM engineers, who argued over spending the money to change the ignition switch—and decided not to. Another document from 2006 also shows the unobstructed trail of this faulty ignition switch to consumer markets—but it’s missing key data, a parts number, and was signed off by an engineer of low seniority, ordinarily not responsible for such a decision. A retired GM manager, per Forbes, then questioned, “So who approved a change?”

Unfortunately, no one seems to know the answer to that question, and it seems near impossible to find out. GM’s product engineers are geographically and logistically distant from corporate headquarters. Barra herself acknowledged during her testimony, “Information was known. It didn’t get communicated.” This communication problem has persisted into the investigation, and it’s likely to cost GM much more than a dollar per car.

The question remains: how long ago did corporate GM find out? During Tuesday’s hearing, Barra avoided answering that question. She assured lawmakers that GM will do so after the internal investigation, currently planned for a few weeks, concludes. But to the families of those affected by this negligence, it’s surely too little, much too late.



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