As General Motors Co. heads into congressional hearings examining its failure to fix a deadly safety defect, the automaker has moved swiftly to burnish its safety credentials by recalling millions of vehicles.
GM said Monday that it will set aside $750 million in the first quarter to pay for repairs even as it recalled an additional 1.5 million vehicles. The car company has now called back about 5 million vehicles in the last two months to fix problems including faulty power steering systems, oil leaks and fractured axle shafts.
The most serious of those — 2.6 million vehicles recalled to replace a defective ignition switch linked to 13 deaths — will be the subject of hearings starting Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
GM Chief Executive Mary Barra will testify before a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel investigating why the automaker waited years to fix the vehicles. She will be joined by David J. Friedman, the acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency that some lawmakers say dragged its feet in forcing GM to address the defect. Other hearings are planned for later in the week.
"In the past General Motors had a policy of, if in doubt, don't recall," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Given the scrutiny and the possibility of criminal penalties, GM has now changed to, if in doubt, do a recall."
GM faces investigations from NHTSA and the Department of Justice into why it did not recall the vehicles sooner.
"Clearly GM is going to be under a lot of pressure," said Alan Baum, market analyst at automotive research firm Baum & Associates in West Bloomfield, Mich. "They want to get all the bad news out at once."
In written testimony released ahead of the hearing, Barra made no excuses for GM's failures.
"I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced," she said. "Mistakes were made in the past. We will not shirk from our responsibilities now and in the future."
Barra noted that she had hired former U.S. Atty. Anton Valukas to investigate what went wrong and promised to publicly release its findings.
GM has known about the ignition issue for a decade, according to documents filed with NHTSA. The switch can shift positions, unexpectedly turning off the car — along with crucial safety features such as power brakes, power steering and air bags.
GM did not begin recalls until February. Affected models include 2003-07 Saturn Ions, 2007-10 Saturn Skys, 2006-11 Chevrolet HHRs, 2006-10 Pontiac Solstices, and 2005-10 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models.
In his written testimony, NHTSA's acting administrator said GM had failed to provide regulators "critical information" that could have triggered recalls years earlier. Only recently did GM provide "new evidence" that made it clear that the ignition problem could disable air bags, Friedman said.
Friedman defended NHTSA's handling of the problem after a House of Representatives report said the agency twice declined to open investigations even though one official found a pattern of problems in 2007.
In his testimony, Friedman said that NHTSA staff erroneously believed the air bags would continue to operate for as long as 60 seconds after power was cut off.
That speaks to a serious lapse in oversight, said Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety.
"It is a sad commentary that the agency that required such advanced air bags did not know how they work," he said.
Regulators and automakers should do a better job of using data analytics and early warning capabilities to identify safety issues, said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with Gartner Inc. But GM's rapid-fire recalls should be reassuring to the public, he said.
"The company would rather be too careful by recalling too many vehicles than too few," Koslowski said.
GM told NHTSA on Monday that it would recall more than 1.3 million U.S. vehicles that may experience a sudden loss of electric power steering assist. It will recall 200,000 more outside the U.S.
The automaker said it knows of some crashes and injuries from the problem, but no deaths. The automaker noted that it was still reviewing the data.
The Chevrolet models in the recall are the Malibu from the 2004-05 model years and some from 2006, 2008 and 2009; the Malibu Maxx from the 2004-05 model years and some from 2006; the HHR from the 2009-10 model years; and some 2010 Cobalts.
The Saturn models in the recall are the Aura from the 2008-09 model years and the Ion from 2004-07. The recall also includes the Pontiac G6 from the 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009 model years.
Depending on the vehicle, GM will replace the power steering motor, the steering column, the power steering motor control unit or a combination of the steering column and the power steering motor control unit.
"We are going after every car that might have this problem, and we are going to make it right," said Jeff Boyer, GM's vice president of global vehicle safety.