Nearly four years after GM recalled 2.4 million midsize sedans for a brake defect, a quarter of them haven't been fixed.
GM's drive to 100% completion rate on recalls: Not there, yet
In March, 24-year-old Anthony Burgess drove one of the cars, a blue 2008 Pontiac G6, to an apartment complex near his home in northeast Indianapolis.
After Burgess parked and got out to talk to a friend, the G6 rolled into a retention pond with his 3-year-old daughter, Amina, inside. Burgess, despite being unable to swim, jumped into the cold water and rescued Amina from the car. He managed to hand her to a bystander who had entered the pond to help, but then he disappeared under the surface and died.
When the G6 was towed out, its gearshift was in neutral. The Indianapolis Star reported that investigators think the girl accidentally knocked it out of park, even though that shouldn't be possible without pressing the brake.
GM had to overcome such obstacles to achieve a 96 percent U.S. completion rate on the recalls for faulty ignition switches, which could lead to engines accidentally shutting off while the vehicle was driven, cutting power to airbags, power steering and power brakes. The repair effort was helped, of course, by months of prominent headlines as the full extent of GM's failures over more than a decade became clear and as a compensation fund GM established approved claims for 124 deaths and 275 injuries.
"That one got a lot of publicity and got on people's radar more than some others do," said John McEleney, who owned a GM dealership in Clinton, Iowa, at the time of the recall and is a past chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association.
But GM's elaborate outreach efforts clearly played a major role. The company offered $25 gift cards to owners who got their vehicle repaired by a certain date, used social media to engage owners, sent letters and made phone calls in Spanish when appropriate, and maintained a website dedicated to the recall.
"That is certainly impressive for vehicles of that age," said Robert Levine, a senior manager at advisory firm Stout Risius Ross who studies recall issues. "It reflects a very dedicated effort to identifying and repairing these vehicles."
GM continues to work on locating the remaining vehicles and encouraging the owners to have the repair done, Wilkinson said.
"The goal is 100 percent completion on any recall," he said.
Stout Risius Ross found that industry recall repair rates have been on the rise, and an increased number of campaigns in recent years — including those covering 50 million Takata airbags — has not significantly changed that trend. The firm's data show the median repair rate topping 80 percent every year since 2006, jumping to 85 percent in 2012 and staying there even through 2014, when the number of recalls surged.
Levine attributes the gains to NHTSA's work promoting more consumer knowledge of recalls — including an online database that lets drivers search their VIN — as well as broader efforts by automakers to contact customers and encourage them to do the repair.
"There is certainly an upward trend over that period," he said, "and it reflects the awareness of owners, as well as the position taken by the regulators and manufacturers' response to that position since some of this elevated activity began."
Because of the ignition switch recall, GM remains under the supervision of a federal monitor, at least until September, as part of a deferred-prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice.
A special period of safety oversight by NHTSA ended last year, but the automaker continues to communicate with the agency regularly and meets with officials there weekly, Wilkinson said.
It has spent billions of dollars on the repairs, compensation to crash victims and families, fines and legal costs.
Since the recalls, GM has restructured its product-development activities, using the aerospace industry and nuclear naval ships as benchmarks, Barra said in May.
A program started by GM shortly after the ignition switch recall, called Speak Up for Safety, is helping the company find and fix problems sooner, Barra told Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein as part of the bank's "Talks at GS" series of interviews. It was designed to let employees report potential dangers anonymously, but few choose to hide their identity, which Barra said shows a culture of greater accountability for safety issues.
"I consider myself the chief risk officer of the company," said Barra, who became CEO a month before the ignition recall started in February 2014. "I've got to be looking at what are we doing. We put a vehicle on the road that is a very powerful piece of equipment that can have really negative consequences. We have to be holding ourselves accountable that we're doing it right."
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