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I’ve Seen This Movie Before

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Another automaker faces safety allegations about what was known and when.

I could swear we’ve seen this movie before. Or something a lot like it.

Different actors but the same plot and basic script that has played out many times.

It’s a rerun that conjures up visions of a squirming Ford CEO Jacques Nasser testifying before Congress in 2000, and later Ford having to admit that he “misspoke” under oath when he said Ford hadn’t tested the tires of Explorer SUVs during the rollover debacle.

Call me a conservative, but isn’t “misspoke” sort of a New-Age polite liberal synonym for “lied”?

Nearly four decades in the retail automobile business and I can recall dozens of instances where manufacturers appeared to have scrambled to conceal or cover up known defects.

The problems Toyota experienced just a few years ago with unintended acceleration and other mechanical and safety issues over a preceding period were grossly overplayed by government and the media. But these issues were known to the automaker long beforehand.

Many automakers, particularly some Japanese juggernauts, have a culture of covering up flaws while, at the same time, performing secret recalls and fixes that never make the headlines.

The most noticeable difference in culture is that the Asian manufacturers accept responsibility and usually do the right thing long before they’re thrust into the spotlight.

Now, we’re facing another scandal involving General Motors and defective ignition switches that evidently without warning slip out of the “run mode” while the car is being driven. This turns off the engine, power steering and power brakes.

Have you ever tried to drive a car under those circumstances? I have, and I’ll tell you it is impossible for a strong man to turn the vehicle even a little. You likely will ram into something.

Picture this happening at high speeds on the interstate, and the power brakes also are just as hard to make the vehicle stop when they fail. You have to stand on them.

On top of all of that, imagine a panicking 110-lb. (50-kg) mother with a car full of children totally freaking out while she tries to drive a car in that condition. Not trying to be overly dramatic, but we’re already seeing this recall characterized as if it’s just a little problem with a defective switch.

They’re saying there are 12 verifiable deaths resulting from sudden electrical system shutdown and airbags that failed to deploy on the affected models that GM admits to.

Formerly associated with Ralph Nader, the Center for Auto Safety, in alliance with The Consumers Union, is claiming there are more than 303 deaths in cases involving the recalled vehicles where the airbags did not deploy.

Of course, GM attorneys already are spinning this in a prepared statement saying in part that “without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions.”

The lengthy statement went on to explain many instances in which airbags might not deploy that didn’t involve the defective switch. Like a swarm of locusts flew up the intake manifold perhaps?

Whether it’s 12 deaths or 303 deaths, does it really matter? Just one preventable death is unacceptable if GM knew about the defective switch as early as 2001. Yes, I know, GM previously had admitted knowing about the defective switch beginning in 2004. But last week it revised that, saying it knew about the switch in 2001.

Oops. Sounds like another automaker “misspoke.”

Here’s the story in a nutshell. They knew about it for nearly 13 years but continued to manufacture and sell the defective cars. The repair in question is a $5 fix that a technician can perform in minutes.

Did GM continue to build and sell these defective units after the first wrongful deaths were known? Was it cost-effective or was there a reputation to protect?

The people who died bought those cars in good faith. They are not figures on a spreadsheet. They were human beings. What can justify continuing to manufacture and distribute these units?

Now, the circus begins. We’ll see attorneys and hack politicians grandstanding, GM executives testifying and hoping not to end up accused of having misspoken.

CEO Mary Barra says she’s likely to testify personally before congressional committees, although this really didn’t happen or continue to happen on her watch. By the way, I really think she’s one of the more competent GM top executives in many years. Too bad she inherited predecessors’ problems.

And then there’s Alan Batey, the bouncy Brit who is the president for GM North America. I’ve not been kind to him in my speeches and writings. Nothing has changed my mind.

My money is on Batey being selected as GM’s point man at congressional hearings. I’ve seen this guy speak before an audience and I can attest to his composure and depth of knowledge and substance under pressure.

Barra and Batey both have said they are sorry about what happened.

These upcoming hearings will be something you want to watch with a bag of popcorn and a Coke.

Under legislation that stemmed from the Ford-Firestone debacle, GM can be fined $35 million. Then there are potential damages from lawsuits. Now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York has begun a criminal investigation. Other states may follow. Then there’s a chance the U.S. Justice Dept. may weigh in.

In potential hearings controlled by Democrats who really need the face time in the media during tough re-election campaigns, this is a gift sent from heaven.

In the words of Vice President Joe Biden: “This is a big blankety-blank deal.”

Jim Ziegler president of Ziegler Supersystems based in metro Atlanta, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues. He can be reached at zieglerss@aol.com. WardsAuto readers also may comment on this article by logging in or registering below.

 

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Mar 19, 2014

Mr. Ziegler, it's obvious you've never worked in an engineering or manufacturing environment, where data drive decisions. You live in a world where gut-feel and sound bites are the norm. Whatever makes you feel good, I suppose. To wit: "Often wrong, never in doubt." In this case, you are wrong. It's no surprise that you quote Joe Biden. You and he have at least one trait in common.

on Mar 20, 2014

Mr. Ziegler, Ward's also linked this article to their headlines the other week. It wasn't only GM that new about this for years, but also the government as well
http://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2014/03/11/gm-pays-price-for-les...

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Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for WardsAuto.com. His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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