General Motors has attempted to distance itself from a widening crisis over its botched handling of a deadly defect by dividing its company history into two distinct periods. The "old" GM existed prior to the company's 2009 bankruptcy and conducted itself one way, and the "new" GM that emerged from the bankruptcy with a renewed commitment to quality and safety.
Federal safety regulators had grown frustrated with what they felt was the company's indifferent attitude toward safety issues.
But documents released Friday in connection with a Congressional investigation into why GM waited so long to recall defective ignition switches showed that, since the bankruptcy, federal safety regulators had grown frustrated with what they felt was the company's indifferent attitude toward safety issues.
Top officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and General Motors exchanged emails on July 23, 2013 in advance of a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issues. In the exchange, Frank Borris, the director of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, says, "the general perception is that GM is slow to communicate, slow to act, and, at times, requires additional effort of ODI that we do not feel is necessary with some of your peers."
Borris then lists six separate occasions, all of which occurred between 2011 and 2013, in which NHTSA felt General Motors had not taken timely or necessary actions regarding safety concerns. A GM spokesperson said Saturday, "We strive to provide timely and accurate information to our regulators."
The allegations of foot-dragging take on heightened importance in the context of the multiple federal investigations into General Motors' failure to swiftly recall more than 2.5 million vehicles afflicted with an ignition-switch defect that has claimed the lives of at least 13 motorists and caused at least 31 crashes in a timely fashion.
General Motors knew about the ignition-switch problem in 2001 – four years before affected cars even rolled off the assembly line – but it didn't issue a recall for the problem until this February. Federal law states that carmakers must recall products within five days once they learn of a safety defect.
General Motors knew about the ignition-switch problem in 2001 but it didn't issue a recall for the problem until this February.
Documents released Friday came from the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The Senate Commerce Committee has also held hearings, the Department of Justice may pursue criminal charges against GM, and NHTSA is in the midst of its own investigation. In testimony before the House committee, NHTSA administrator David Friedman said GM didn't provide key information that could have alerted the agency to a vexing problem sooner.
Until today, the scope of the probes had been on delays of the ignition-switch recall. But Borris' emails suggest the delays weren't limited to that particular case, but instead raise the possibility they are a matter of routine practice.
He references six separate instances in which GM either sought to minimize the scope of a recall by only conducting a regional recall, which saves money for automakers, or by conducting a "customer satisfaction campaign" instead of a full-blown recall. The emails show NHTSA had to often press the automaker to either issue recalls and/or expand their scopes. (Complete email exchange here; and more documents released Friday here).
"There is a general perception in ODI that GM is one of, if not the worst offender of the regional recall policy," Borris wrote to GM's M. Carmen Benavides, the company's director of product investigations, safety regulations and certification.
In another instance, NHTSA and GM haggled first over whether certain vehicles needed to be recalled to fix a part that could prevent the airbags from working, then later disagreed on the scope of how many cars the problem affected.
"There is a general perception in ODI that GM is one of, if not the worst offender of the regional recall policy." – Frank Borris
"This was particularly frustrating and all started when ODI raised concern with a TSB (technical service bulletin) that appeared to involve a (fairly obvious) safety issue," Borris wrote.
After Benavides says the company looks forward to addressing the points in the face-to-face meeting, Borris replies again, and says that NHTSA also wants to discuss "difficulty in obtaining responses" in its probe of a GM dealership in Pennsylvania that was selling new cars that had been recalled without fixing the safety problems.
Benavides then forwarded the email from Borris to several top General Motors employees, including Alicia Boler-Davis, who was named GM's senior vice president for global quality and customer experience last summer.
One day later, Michael J. Robinson, a global vice president of regulatory affairs, expressed shock at the Borris email.
"This note from NHTSA, both the content and the tone, comes like a bolt out of the blue," he wrote. "... We need to address this immediately and I would like to discuss. We worked way too hard to earn a reputation as the best and we are not going to let this slide."
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.