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General Motors CEO questioned about deadly ignition defect

There was tense questioning of the CEO of General Motors on Capitol Hill on April 1 over a small auto defect that led to the deaths of 13 people over several years. The automaker has recalled 2.6 million vehicles that had a defective ignition switch, which could cause the cars to shut down unexpectedly, exposing drivers and passengers to potentially deadly car accidents.

Though GM issued the recall in February, the company apparently had reason to believe the product defect existed as early as 2003. The company admits that it considered solutions to the defect in 2005, but took no action because no solutions were “an acceptable business case.”

This prioritization of business over human safety meant that GM continued to put defective switches in several of its automobiles, chiefly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions. Between June 2003 and June 2012, more than 130 warranty claims were filed with the company that appear to have been related to the ignition defect. At least 13 deaths have been linked to this problem.

GM’s CEO Mary Barra was brought before a Congressional subcommittee on April 1 to explain GM’s apparent indifference to the defect until this past February. Barra told lawmakers that she is not certain herself, claiming that she had not reviewed documents detailing GM’s thinking prior to her tenure.

At one point, a Congressman held up one of the switches and demonstrated how a spring inside it would fail when the switch is jostled, causing the engine to turn off suddenly. A replacement spring costs 57 cents.

Barra acknowledged that a recall would have cost GM about $100 million in 2007. Today, the cost will be “substantially” more.

At times, we must trust that the companies that make our cars and other products are using properly designed and manufactured parts. But sometimes, that trust is broken, as this case demonstrates.

Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “13 GM traffic deaths are tied to a 57-cent part,” April 1, 2014

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