GM's debacle: A lesson for the auto industry


Viewing last week's congressional hearings through the prism of history, you would get the impression that the industry hasn't progressed a millimeter on safety since Ralph Nader exposed the instability of the Chevy Corvair a half century ago.

Never mind that in those days General Motors dispatched undercover spies to discredit its critics and that today GM is hiring the best and the brightest to figure out how it screwed up and how victims' families should be compensated.

In the court of public opinion -- and in the eyes of lawmakers -- GM is just the latest in a long line of automakers that can't stop themselves from peddling death traps.

From Ford and its exploding Pinto fuel tanks to Toyota and its runaway cars, ghosts of industry failures were paraded before GM CEO Mary Barra amid two days of interrogation from incredulous lawmakers

Just months into her new job, she was left answering for a flawed GM "process" that somehow was allowed to flourish a decade and four chief executives ago.

Some will wish -- as we certainly do -- that Barra had done better in defending herself, her company and her industry in an admittedly no-win situation.

But it would be a mistake to think that the type of crisis GM now faces is unique to the company. Automakers big and small, import and domestic, have found themselves in similar messes over the years. Still, there's no reason why this latest debacle can't be the last.

Every life lost is one too many. But obscured in last week's hearings is the fact that the annual U.S. highway death toll has dropped to 60-year lows, despite exponential increases in the number of cars on the road and miles driven.

Yes, regulators and insurance groups and consumer advocates have played no small part in pushing change. But so, too, have the men and women of this industry, who have loaded cars with belts and bags and sensors and padding and innovations galore to deliver a level of protection undreamed of back in the 1950s, when Ford couldn't get the public to buy its Lifeguard steering wheels.

Despite all the gains, this industry can't seem to avoid adding to its litany of safety fiascos -- and the needless deaths that accompany them.

If there has been one pattern to these crises over the decades, it's that somewhere along the line -- from design to engineering to assembly to purchasing to sales and marketing -- there has been an opportunity for someone to say, "Stop. Let's rethink this."

May the GM ignition-switch tragedy serve as an enduring lesson for everyone in the industry. May it give every underling the courage to speak up and every boss the ears to listen.



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