General Motors CEO Mary Barra is reaching out directly to customers, as GM tries to counter bad publicity from a recall of cars with a potentially deadly ignition switch defect.
GM posted five videos of Barra on its website Wednesday answering questions about the recall of 1.6 million compact cars to fix the ignition switches. The company also said Barra listened in on customer calls for about a half hour last Thursday at the automaker's suburban Detroit call centre, although none of the callers spoke about the recall.
GM has acknowledged it knew about the problem for at least a decade but did not recall the cars until last month. The problem is linked to at least 12 deaths.
Take anything heavy off key rings
In the short videos, Barra assures viewers that the compact cars are safe, as long as they remove everything from their key rings. GM has said that weight dangling from the rings can cause the ignition to slide out of the run position into accessory or off. That shuts down the engine and disables power-assisted steering, power brakes and air bags. As a result, a driver can lose control of their car.
Barra, who became CEO Jan. 15, also tells people that replacement ignition switches will be available starting April 7, so GM can start fixing the cars. She says there will be enough parts available to fix all the cars by October.
The ignition switch recall is a trial by fire for the newly appointed CEO, as analysts watch to see if her communications skills can counteract the accusations flying about how much GM knew about the flaw.
On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Two weeks later it added 842,000 Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). The recalled cars have the same ignition switches.
Ready to offer loaner cars
The company has told dealers to offer loaner cars to drivers until the repairs can be made. It has received 9,000 requests for cars and has granted several thousand, spokesman Klaus-Peter Martin said. He did not know an exact number. But GM didn't tell owners about the rental car offer in its recall letters.
A Texas law firm is disputing Barra's contention that the cars are safe to drive if weight is removed from the key rings. The firm filed a federal court lawsuit asking a judge to order GM to tell customers to park the cars until they are repaired.
The Hilliard Munoz Gonzales firm says in its motion that GM told customers in a letter that an empty key chain may not help because rough road conditions or other jarring could cause the cars to lose engine power, as well as power steering and air bags, the motion said.
The videos come less than a week before Barra is set to testify before a Congressional subcommittee about how GM failed to fix an ignition switch defect affecting as many as 1.6 million small cars from the 2003 to 2007 model years. The issue is now linked to 31 crashes and 12 deaths, though this numbers could change as more information becomes available.
A Senate subcommittee announced Wednesday that Barra will appear at a hearing on April 2. She is also speaking to a House subcommittee on April 1.