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General Motors (GM) Chief Executive Mary Barra appears before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on GM General Motors (GM) Chief Executive Mary Barra appears before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on GM's recall of defective ignition switches, on Capitol Hill in Washington April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  

Congress grills GM CEO about vehicle recalls

General Motors CEO Mary Barra wrapped up testimony Wednesday regarding vehicle malfunctions that led to the deaths of at least twelve Americans and one Canadian.

The cars’ faulty ignition switches, which are believed to have caused the deaths, recently led GM to announce a recall of 2.6 million vehicles. Some of the six car models with impaired ignition switches have been on the road since 2003.

The congressional committees looking into the issue are concerned there is potentially incriminating evidence indicating that GM approved the ignition switch, made by Delphi Automotive, although it did not meet the car company’s standards.

Also, internal documents show that the automaker may have recognized the ignition switch malfunction ten or more years ago, but did not properly address the problem.

Back in 2001, GM engineers experienced an issue with the ignition switch while they were testing a Saturn. Engineers believed they addressed the defect by redesigning the car part.

The problem resurfaced in 2004 when another GM engineer test driving a Chevrolet Cobalt hit they key and the car accidentally shut off. This is allegedly the first time the automaker became aware of what proved to be a deadly glitch.

Additionally, documents given to the committee show that GM received hundreds of consumer complaints about the ignition switch.

So why did it take GM so long to recall its impaired vehicles?

“Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in [the small car] program, but I can tell you that we will find out,” Barra told House committee members in her prepared testimony Tuesday.

“When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators, and with our customers,” she promised the Senate Wednesday.

Barra said she also was not aware of when GM first knew of the ignition switch defect or who at the company was notified about the faulty part.

GM is not the only party on the hook for the massive recall. It is also the job of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate accident trends and demand recalls of unsafe vehicles. However, in the case of GM, the NHTSA remained silent.

Defending its failure to act, the acting administrator of the NHTSA, David Friedman, told the committee on Tuesday that GM did not provide regulators with timely information about the impaired ignition switches.

Friedman also surprised lawmakers on Wednesday by admitting he was not aware his agency had subpoena power to demand documents from GM.

Some have alleged that the reasons behind the regulating body’s lack of oversight may have been voluntary negligence.

A New York Times article recently highlighted the revolving door between the NHTSA, noting that many of the agency’s former employees now “represent companies they were once responsible for regulating, part of a well-established migration from regulator to the regulated in Washington.”

The stalled recall of GM’s vehicles has attracted the attention of lawmakers, in part, because of the automakers close ties with the government. In 2009, the vehicle manufacturer was rescued in a taxpayer-financed bailout when it filed for bankruptcy, which earned the company the nickname “Government Motors.” It has since repaid the government.

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