Just when you thought GM and Detroit had turned the corner, along comes the Chevy Cobalt.

A lemon from the word go, the Cobalt had a dazzling array of problems: doors that locked and unlocked of their own volition; doors that didn’t open when it rained; rear windows that fell out when the door was slammed; engines that kept running when the ignition was shut off; chimes that sounded just before the driver lost control of the car’s steering.

These were all bizarre, and caused GM to recall 2.6 million of the Cobalt and its small-car siblings in the past two months, according to The New York Times.

“Mary
Barra testifies before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Photo: House Energy & Commerce Committee

But the Cobalt also had a more serious, sometimes lethal problem: an ignition switch that, when bumped or jostled or even weighed down with extra keys, moved to the “Accessory” position, shutting the car down and causing the driver to lose control of steering, power brakes, and control. Air bags failed to deploy, increasing the risk of serious injury or death.

At this writing, 13 deaths have been linked to this problem, which was documented a decade ago but only recently surfaced when GM issued a full-scale recall of the Cobalt.

So far in 2014, says the New York Times, GM has recalled nearly five million vehicles, nearly six times the number of vehicles recalled in all of 2013.

Mary Barra, GM’s newest CEO and the first woman to head a major auto manufacturer, told the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, “I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced.”

Nevertheless, she vowed: “Today’s GM will do the right thing.”

As I write this, Ms. Barra has been testifying before the committee for approximately two hours. It is an enormous committee, and the questions were tough and wide-ranging.

Two things are not selling: First, GM doesn’t know much about what happened, and kept referring to an investigation to be conducted by Anton Valukas, the attorney who headed the probe into the failure of Lehman Brothers. Ms. Barra referred to the Valukas investigation dozens of times in lieu of direct or yes/no answers, and committee members were clearly growing impatient. Moreover, despite pledges of transparency, she would not commit to turning over Mr. Valukas’s full report, only “appropriate” portions.

Second, there is little apparent difference between “Today’s GM,” and yesterday’s starchy, secretive, corporate bureaucracy. They have shuffled the organization chart, removed an entire layer of management in product development, and appointed a new worldwide director of product safety.

But GM remains a profoundly siloed place (even the headquarters buildings are shaped like silos), where information bubbles up to senior management with glacial slowness, and there is no indication that has changed very much. Ms. Barra’s assertion that it “took too long” to find out about the Cobalt problem rings somewhat hollow when you see that the congressional committee knows more about what happened than she does, and that she hasn’t looked at the 200,000 pages of documents submitted prior to her testimony.

Mary Barra has been given something of a pass by commentators here and elsewhere for dealing with this problem forthrightly even though she wasn’t in charge at the time, but in fact she owns this problem. She is a GM lifer who has held important manufacturing posts since 2005, and to an outsider it seems extremely unlikely that she would not have heard about a lemon in their product mix long before rising to the top job. It’s not like she was in Europe or Asia overseeing production there. She was on the ranch—in fact, a top foreman of the ranch-- and had to know something was amiss. The sooner she acknowledges ownership and devotes all of her time to this crisis, the better off “Today’s GM” will be.

There is no more important task for a CEO in this kind of spot.


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Bill Huey is president of Strategic Communications in Baton Rouge, LA, a corporate communications and marketing consultancy, and author of "Carbon Man," a novel about greed. He can be reached at bhuey@bellsouth.net.