THE GM RECALL

'I bet my life' that Barra was unaware of safety defect, Akerson says

Former GM CEO Dan Akerson denies in a Forbes interview that his successor, Mary Barra, "was thrown under the bus" just before the automaker's recall crisis.
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DETROIT -- Former General Motors CEO Dan Akerson says in a new published report that his successor, Mary Barra, didn't know about a deadly safety defect in GM small cars when she took the job in January.

In an article that appears on Forbes' Web site today and is scheduled for publication in the magazine's June 16 issue, Akerson is quoted as saying "of course not" after being asked whether Barra "was thrown under the bus" by being handed the job just before GM decided to recall cars for a defective ignition switch now linked to 13 deaths.

“Mary has said it: The moment she became aware of the problem, as I would expect, she confronted it," Akerson said in his first public comments about the ignition switch issue, which led to the recalls of 2.6 million cars.

Akerson announced in December that he would retire Jan. 15, about a year earlier than planned, to care for his wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Barra has said that she and other GM executives learned of the problem with the ignition switch on Jan. 31.

GM has acknowledged that some employees were aware of the problem with the part for more than a decade. But Barra "didn’t know about it," Akerson told Forbes. "I bet my life on it.”

The switch, used mostly in Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, is prone to slipping out of the "run" position if jostled or weighed down by a heavy key chain, shutting off power steering and brakes and disabling the airbag. Last week, GM raised the number of crashes that it links to the defect to 47, from 35.

GM's handling of the faulty part is the subject of investigations by the U.S. Justice Department, two congressional committees and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which fined GM $35 million this month for the company's delayed response in reporting the defect.

GM has said it will be able to produce enough parts to fix the recalled vehicles by October. Only 47,000 of the 2.6 million vehicles had received replacement switches as of last week, GM said.

Barra told the magazine that she views the ignition switch crisis -- which has triggered a wave of 30 recalls covering more than 15 million vehicles globally as GM sharpens its focus on safety lapses -- as a chance to change the way GM operates.

“Obviously we want to do the right thing and serve the customer well through this," she said. "But it’s also an opportunity to accelerate cultural change.”

The article also quotes Tim Solso, who became GM's chairman when Akerson retired, as endorsing Barra’s handling of the crisis.

“The confidence has grown over a period of time, given the way that Mary has handled all the situations: testifying before Congress, meeting with the media,” Solso told the magazine. “She’s done a superb job, and the board recognizes that.”

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.

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