New CEO of General Motors Mary Barra speaks during a press conference at the Opel car factory in Ruesselsheim, Germany, on Jan. 27.(Photo: Michael Probst, AP)
(USATODAY.com) - In an unusual move, General Motors CEO Mary Barra says she's personally directing the recall of 1.37 million GM cars with a potentially fatal flaw in their ignition switches - one GM has known about since 2004 but kept using at least until late 2006.
Separately, GM President Dan Ammann came close to directly blaming the "old," pre-bankruptcy reorganization GM for the recall. He told the trade publication Automotive News at the Geneva Motor Show: "This is a new leadership team. We're aiming to do things in the right way."
GM says it knows of 31 crashes and 13 front-seat deaths in cases where front air bags failed to deploy, possibly because faulty ignition switches had inadvertently moved out of the "run" position into "accessory." That shuts off the engine and kills power to safety systems, usually including air bags.
"You're seeing a signal here about the seriousness of the issue," says Jeremy Robinson-Leon, COO at Group Gordon, New York crisis public relations firm. "And we're talking about death here."
Barra, he says, is "staking her reputation on handling this properly."
In a letter to employees Tuesday, Barra said that GM created a working group of senior executives, which I lead, to direct our response, monitor our progress and make adjustments as necessary."
GM declined to say who is in the group of senior executives.
She also emphasized in the letter: "We will hold ourselves accountable and improve our processes so our customers do not experience this again."
In the comments, sent to employees in an electronic GM newsletter Tuesday, the CEO said, "Our company's reputation won't be determined by the recall itself, but by how we address the problem going forward."
Like Ammann, she indirectly focused blame on the "old" GM: "What is important is taking great care of our customers and showing that it really is a new day at GM."
The vehicles recalled in the U.S. are Chevrolet Cobalts from the 2005-07 model years; 2003-07 Saturn Ions; 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs and Pontiac Solstices; and 2007 Saturn Sky and Pontiac G5 models. GM engineers knew the switch could slip out of "run" during testing in 2004, according to court depositions obtained by USA TODAY.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating whether GM reported the safety problem soon enough. NHTSA requires automakers to notify it within five working days of identifying a safety defect. NHTSA can impose a fine up to $35 million if it decides an automaker took too long.