WASHINGTON -- Corvair. Pinto. Explorer. Cobalt?
Capitol Hill's reaction to General Motors CEO Mary Barra's testimony last week sent a clear signal to Washington insiders: Congress is probably headed toward a round of reforms to U.S. laws and standards, like the ones enacted after the Chevy Corvair, Ford Pinto and Ford Explorer came to symbolize some of the worst auto safety crises in U.S. history.
The coming changes are hard to predict, but when the dust settles and reforms are complete, an entire industry may end up feeling the impact of GM's errors.
Barra vowed to return to Capitol Hill after an internal GM investigation is complete in 45 to 60 days. Separate inquiries by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation also will influence Congress' path forward.
But experts see intense pressure on Congress to do something -- quickly.
"Time is always the enemy for any legislative effort in response to a crisis," David Strickland, NHTSA's administrator until January, said in an interview. "As you move farther and farther away from the crisis, other things happen in the world. It's difficult to maintain momentum for things that looked incredibly important just a few months earlier."
Last week's hearings, which put Barra's face on the front page of the nation's leading newspapers and her apology on the nightly news, made clear that GM's crisis has galvanized support for tougher safety laws. Consumer crusader Ralph Nader, who sparked the nation's first auto-safety laws by detailing the Chevrolet Corvair's unsteady steering in his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, said last week that the GM recall has now reached critical mass.
"This has all the elements," he said in an interview with New York magazine. "It's a cocktail that gets it going. It is very difficult to get the press into that realm. Take it from someone who knows from over the years."
The first legislative proposals have been laid on the table by two liberal Democrats, Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Their bill would open up automakers' "early warning reports" to the public and require NHTSA to disclose its inspection and investigation activities. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has introduced a companion bill in the House.
"I've tried, year after year for more than 10 years, to have legislation passed that would require the disclosure of all of this information," Markey told Barra during Wednesday's hearing. "And it was the automobile industry that killed my legislation, year after year. This is the moment now for you to say more than that you're sorry."
Industry insiders say that of all the bills Congress could consider, automakers would likely fight hardest against letting the public see their confidential reports to NHTSA because that would make it easier for plaintiffs' attorneys to sue them.
Regulators may not want the early warning data public either. If automakers become hesitant to submit data to NHTSA, the regulators would end up with less of it.
To pass, any legislation would need to win support from key players such as House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.; Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairman of the Commerce Committee's consumer protection panel.
Those legislators haven't endorsed any legislation, saying they would prefer to wait for definitive reports on what went wrong at GM. Auto industry insiders in Washington expect them to conclude that the deadly defect was a result of GM's failure to comply with the law, not necessarily a problem with the law itself.
That means Congress may move to strengthen NHTSA's defects investigation office, which has a $10 million annual budget and 51 employees but is responsible for monitoring problems in the more than 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads.
Lawmakers may also increase NHTSA's maximum civil penalty for automakers that violate safety laws. Congress increased the cap from $925,000 to $15 million in 2000, after the Ford-Firestone crisis involving rollover crashes in SUVs such as the Ford Explorer.
In the aftermath of the Toyota unintended-acceleration recalls, that cap was raised again to $35 million -- well short of the $200 million sought by the Obama administration.
Considering that Toyota reached a $1.2 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice in March to resolve criminal charges stemming from that case, Strickland said, "there's probably a feeling that the agency should have higher penalty authority than what it currently has, for deterrent value."
Recent history has shown it's difficult to enact auto-safety legislation without tacking it on to a must-pass highway bill, but there are exceptions. The reforms prompted by shredded tires of Ford vehicles, including the Explorer, prompted the TREAD Act, which passed as a stand-alone bill in 2000. So did the 2008 bill ordering NHTSA to mandate backup cameras in new cars.
President Obama has called for a four-year, $302 billion highway bill to fix crumbling U.S. roads and bridges. House and Senate transportation committees are working on a compromise deal. It may not be finished before this fall's midterm election, but it presents the best chance for auto-safety reforms in response to the GM crisis.Airbag standards
GM's defect also could prompt a new industry standard for the algorithms that decide when airbags deploy and when they don't.
In his testimony before Congress, acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman said it didn't occur to investigators that the defective ignition switch in the Cobalt could cause airbags not to deploy. Regulators thought airbags would be active even with the switch in the "off" position. Now they know that was not necessarily the case.
"If a vehicle is moving, the airbag algorithm should make those airbags deploy," Friedman told McCaskill's subcommittee. "Is it truly a power issue or something embedded in their algorithm that shouldn't have been there?"
Automakers have different algorithms. NHTSA may decide standards are needed. Or the industry may settle on a common practice to prevent a recurrence of flaws similar to the one in the Cobalt. Either way, Congress seems determined to apply pressure.
"This is a problem," McCaskill told reporters after Wednesday's hearing. "We need to take a look industrywide and [ask] 'What is the specification about deployment of airbags if there is a loss of power?'"
You can reach Gabe Nelson at email@example.com