NHTSA Shrugged

There's a new sheriff in town... and he's big on self-enforcement.

There’s a new sheriff in town… and he’s big on self-enforcement.

As the GM ignition switch scandal snowballed over the last year, there has been much debate about just how much blame NHTSA bears for not catching the decade-old defect. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce staff report [PDF] analyzes NHTSA’s failure to prevent the deaths of 84 Americans (and counting), and concluded that a number of factors prevented NHTSA from detecting patterns that GM’s own top executives claim to never have known about. With headings like “information silos ” and “organizational tunnel vision,” the failures identified in the report are strikingly similar to the culture problems blamed for GM’s malfeasance; there’s even a “NHTSA shrug” to match the “GM shrug” identified in GM’s Valukas Report.  But the report’s final page gives the ultimate version of what we might as well start calling the “American shrug”:

There are no simple solutions to the failures exposed by this recall.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. Again, if GM’s own leadership couldn’t identify the problem amid ten years of evidence it’s fair to say NHTSA didn’t have a chance. So rather than wondering why NHTSA isn’t capable of catching the worst-case nightmare scenario, perhaps we should be setting the bar a little lower. For example, let’s ask if NHTSA can at least ensure recalled cars don’t get sold before being repaired and if it can apply its efforts consistently. Because apparently even these modest standards are too much to ask…

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Michigan Chevy dealer turns recall-profiteer: “Let your problem be our problem.”

GM has, at last count, recalled 15.4 million units globally this year, 13.6 million of them in the U.S. alone. By the time you read this, this number is likely outdated, news of fresh GM recalls have become as routine as the morning sunrise. This hasn’t impacted GM’s sales in an appreciative way. Some dealers even try turning GM’s misery into increased sales, offering allegedly extra trade-in allowances to owners of recalled cars, thereby fostering the impression that lemons are highly valued at a Chevy dealer.

Subscribing to the axiom that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and that a car dealer should know no shame, Davison, Michigan Hank Graff Chevrolet runs this TV ad: [Continue Reading]

Never Mind The Part Number, GM’s Ignition Sign-Off Had No Purchase Order

Follow the asterisks...

Follow the asterisks…

The Ray DeGorgio-signed GM Validation Sign-Off for the “stealth redesigned” ignition has been much-mentioned for the fact that it showed GM did sign off on engineering changes without a part number change. But the most interesting part of the document seems to have been little discussed anywhere: the unfilled fields for “GM Validation Engineer” and “Purchase Order No.” Perhaps the asterisk next to them means something important…

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GM Recall: Answers Hiding In Plain Sight?

And all the investigations, all of Lutz's men/ couldn't figure out who was in charge of things then.

And all the investigations, all of Lutz’s men, couldn’t figure out who was in charge of things then…

In the wake of General Motors’ and Mary Barra’s public lambasting last week, at the hands Congress and Comedy alike, a new sense of gravity now surrounds the still-unfolding scandal. Combined with the shocking facts surrounding the defect itself, Barra’s performance paints a picture of a GM unable to establish basic accountability without outside intervention. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, and sounding more like a corporate consultant than radical activist, Ralph Nader advises Barra to act relentlessly, arguing:

Look what it’s costing them: It’s already at $750 million and growing. What’s it cost them in lost sales? All kinds of stuff spills out, even if it’s not directly related to the ignition switch. She knows that it’s just going to get worse and worse. There are going to be whistle-blowers, and plain envelopes, especially when the press sees prizes — they see Polk Awards, Pulitzers, and so on — once they get into that realm, there’s no stopping it.

This has all the elements. It’s a cocktail that gets it going. It is very difficult to get the press into that realm — take it from someone who knows from over the years.

Ralph’s right: Barra’s unconvincing performance last week has stepped up pressure to find the answers she wouldn’t provide, and there’s no knowing where some tough digging could lead. After all, there are answers that Barra refused to give still hiding in (relatively) plain sight. With the help of a single book and internet access, anyone can find insight into the problems that are stumping Congress, the media and Mary Barra herself… Let’s not wait for the investigation, shall we?

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Niedermeyer Tackles GM Recall Regulation At Road & Track

Can it be saved? Or is there another way?

Can it be saved? Or is there another way?

In my last Bloomberg View column, I asked the question on everyones’ lips: how do you solve a problem like General Motors? I gloomily concluded that only creative destruction at the hands of consumers would truly “fix” a culture as broken as GM’s, in light of the firm’s nearly half-century of arrogance and failure. But with congressional hearings about to begin, Road & Track asked me to explore the regulatory side of the problem in a little more depth. Perhaps, one editor suggested, NHTSA’s ineptitude, underfunding or industry capture adds to the government’s responsibility for this mess.

Clearly this is the case. The shameful situation with David Strickland and Chrysler/Venable proves that Americans can’t trust NHTSA to serve their interests. But is there really evidence that NHTSA could have forced a GM recall any earlier than it did? Given that GM execs appear to have hid the problem from themselves, NHTSA would have to embed deep within every automaker to catch this type of problem. Instead of throwing more money and mandates at NHTSA, which clearly has its own culture issues, it’s time to take a different approach. Rather than trying to hold an entire corporation accountable, lawmakers should create criminal penalties and whistleblower protections that force every executive and engineer to personally weigh the consequences of cutting corners in vehicle safety. As my R&T piece concludes:

The first line of responsibility for the public’s safety lies with the engineers and executives who design and build the cars … just as individual motorists are the first line in terms of their personal safety. Only when they individually face penalties that are nearly as harsh as those consumers face at the hands of their defects will they truly take safety as seriously as we do.

The Great Auto Safety Crash, Or, Why You Need To Be A Lawyer To Do An Automotive Journalist’s Work

GMCobaltNHTSA

I'm not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960's...

I’m not an automotive journalist, but I played one on TV in the 1960’s…

Of all the automotive sector topics covered by the business media, defect recalls are consistently one of the most tricky to cover. Most defects are the inevitable products of immensely complex supply chains and constant price pressure, and recalls for them are ultimately a sign of a company responding to the problem. And with some 22 million vehicles recalled from the US market in 2013, consumers can hardly be expected to know which ones represent grounds for real concern.

Because automakers control all the information about the products they make, reporters on the automotive safety beat have little choice but rely on the company line for their stories. Only the threat of investigation by the National Highway Transit Safety Administration compels automakers to fully reveal their dirty laundry, and only NHTSA’s complaint database gives the public an opportunity to compare their experiences with the company line. No wonder the first real auto safety journalist (and the inspiration for NHTSA’s founding) was a lawyer.

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