General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra faces tough questioning in Congress over why the company ignored a faulty ignition problem for a decade despite numerous accident reports and 13 deaths.
Also in the dock will be the US auto safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), under attack for not acting on its own evidence that the ignitions posed dangerous risks to drivers.
The hearing on Tuesday is the first in what is likely to be a mounting pile of legal troubles for the US auto giant, including a Justice Department probe and lawsuits from people injured and families of those who died in crashes allegedly tied to the ignition issue.
Analysts have already speculated that the trouble could cost the company billions of dollars in penalties and damages, on top of the huge costs of the recalls themselves.
In prepared testimony to the investigations subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Barra, a lifetime GM employee, said she still does not know why it took years for the automaker to act on the ignition problem.
But she pledged to find out, and to be “fully transparent” with the answers.
“More than a decade ago, GM embarked on a small car program. Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program,” Barra said in her prepared remarks released in advance of the hearing.
“When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators and with our customers.”
She said management would be “fully accountable” for the issue, and that GM “will do the right thing,” though what that entails is not clear.
Legally, GM’s 2008-2009 rescue by the government and bankruptcy reorganisation could protect it from liabilities before that, a possibility that has angered some lawmakers.
Since February, General Motors has recalled 2.4 million cars covering model years 2005-2010 over the faulty ignitions, which can abruptly switch into “accessory” or “off” position while driving, especially when the car is jolted.
That can turn off the car’s electrical systems, including its safety airbags, preventing them from inflating in a collision.
GM says it has evidence of more than 30 accidents in which the airbags did not inflate, with the ignition apparently the problem, and 13 deaths as a consequence.
The independent Centre for Auto Safety says it has tracked 303 accidents in the GM cars involved in which the airbags did not inflate.
GM’s own documentation shows that it was first aware of a problem in 2001 when the cars involved were in the pre-production stage.
The recalls – including one for 1.5 million cars announced late on Monday – deal with issues of various levels of danger from power steering failure to transmission problems.