Published on April 16, 2014

Barra creates GM engineering team to improve vehicle safety

(Crain News Service photo)
Mary Barra

By Mike Colias, Crain News Service

NEW YORK (April 16, 2014) — General Motors Co., fighting to bolster its reputation amid a recall crisis, has created a team of engineers aimed at improving vehicle safety, CEO Mary Barra said April 15.

Touting a “new way of developing vehicles,” Ms. Barra said the new “global product integrity” team will “provide the highest levels of safety, quality, and customer service.”

While sharing few details, she said GM will take the same approach that has helped that auto maker improve the ride and handling of its vehicles in recent years and apply it to safety performance.

The new safety team will be integrated into GM’s global product development enterprise and report to product chief Mark Reuss, Ms. Barra told a conference hosted by J.D. Power and Associates and the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA).

It’s the latest step GM has taken in recent weeks to convince consumers and regulators that the company has renewed rigor on safety in the wake of the recall of 2.6 million vehicles for a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 deaths.

In a post on GM’s corporate website on April 14, Ms. Barra promoted a “Speak Up for Safety” system to encourage employees to flag safety problems. She said the effort will recognize employees who speak up “for their courage and openness.”

Onstage interview

During an on-stage interview with Automotive News Publisher and Editor Jason Stein following her prepared remarks, Ms. Barra acknowledged the difficulty of having to cope with the recall crisis in her first few months since taking the CEO job on Jan. 15.

“In these difficult situations, you find moments of truth,” she said.

It was Ms. Barra’s first public appearance since testifying before two congressional panels early this month about GM’s handling of the ignition switch recall, during which she repeatedly declined to answer specific questions, citing GM’s ongoing internal investigation.

That drew scorn from lawmakers and inspired a “Saturday Night Live” skit parodying her deflection of the panelists’ questions.

Her appearance in Washington was “probably not on my top 10,” she said, adding that the lawmakers “have their jobs to do.”

Ms. Barra said she’s a longtime fan of the show and said it’s important to “maintain your sense of humor.” But she stressed that the auto maker is dedicated to fixing “a serious situation as quickly as we can.”

Shipments under way

Ms. Barra said GM began shipping replacement switches to dealerships last week. She praised how some auto dealerships are handling the recall, including Cargill Chevrolet in Putnam, Conn., which she said added 20 loaner cars to its fleet and called the owners of every recalled vehicle in its area.

Ms. Barra provided little detail about the new safety team. She said newly appointed global safety chief Jeff Boyer would serve on it, making sure that GM follows a “very streamlined” process for finding potential problems and fixing them.

GM is holding a Web conference April 16 to update car dealers on how to handle the recall work.

Ms. Barra said she “agonized” over GM’s suspension with pay last week of two engineers for their roles in allowing GM to let the faulty switch linger in some off the 2004-2007 small cars for as long as a decade. The defect is linked to 13 deaths and 35 crashes.

“These are real people with real careers,” she said of the engineers.

Similar to her first appearances as CEO during the Detroit auto show in January, Ms. Barra was engulfed by a media scrum of reporters and camera crews following her appearance on stage.

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This report appeared on autonews.com, the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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