Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cobalt Ignites More than Switch Crisis for GM

A scanned image of part of the window sticker for my 1998 Chevy Malibu

More than anything else, it was political grandstanding, with General Motors as the requisite villain.

Never ones willing to waste a perfectly good crisis, our legislators in Washington called the new head of General Motors, Mary Barra, to testify today for a congressional hearing regarding lethal problems with Chevrolet's Cobalt cars.  A faulty ignition switch has been blamed in the deaths of 13 people, and perhaps up to 300 more, even as critics allege that GM knew of a problematic switch, how to fix it, and yet waited for more than a decade before publicly admitting that anything was wrong.

The public uproar has been strong, and being painfully aware that they were the ones who'd spent billions of taxpayer dollars on bailing out GM - just a couple of years after the Cobalt's problems started - Congress wants to be seen as waging a fierce campaign for consumer protections.  Even though the official investigation into the Cobalt crisis has only just begun in Detroit.  As Barra was grilled by grim-faced legislators before the cameras, her most frequent answer was "we're looking into that."

How informative.  And productive.

It doesn't help GM's PR image that Barra is virtually brand-new to the corporation's top office, which makes it unlikely that she has much - if any - knowledge of why it took her company so long to 'fess up and fix what ailed their Cobalt.  Yes, she's a career employee at GM, but even though she's technically responsible for what her employer did - and didn't do - over ten year ago, she wasn't in charge then.  The most influence she probably can wield over history at this point is to pressure GM's investigation to find the folks who were knowledgeable about this apparent cover-up.  After all, GM obviously wants to frame this as a cover-up, and not sheer bungling by highly-paid staffers who couldn't fix an ordinary yet crucial gadget.  At least a cover-up means that punishment can be meted so customer confidence might be restored; pure incompetence casts a less temporary pall upon the entire company.

As a GM lifer, what was Barra doing around the time of the Cobalt fiasco?  Well, she was a vice president over one of the company's engineering departments, but let's remember that in a corporation the size of GM, her involvement in things like ignition switches could have been minimal at best.  Besides, she was only an engineering vice president for a year before being switched to the human resources office.

In corporate America, sometimes it can seem as though career-climbers are only allowed to stay in a particular office or role long enough to build a resume, but not really become responsible for much of anything.  Even after being promoted to HR, she only spent two year there.  Meanwhile, how many engineers, human resources administrators, and other professionals spend years learning every aspect of their jobs, maintaining their credentials, and keeping up with industry changes?  Not that she isn't a brilliant individual, but do executives like Barra get promoted because they've mastered the skills essential to their current department's success, or because large corporations value big-picture people over nuts-and-bolts people?  Barra may have had a broad exposure to the many facets of GM's corporate empire, but how many other executives at GM would be any better prepared than her, if they were in the hotseat, to muster more than her trite apologies and incomplete answers before Congress, and our national media?

On the one hand, I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, especially when she recites soundbites like "we used to be a profit-oriented company, but now we're a customer-oriented company."  Nevertheless, on the other hand, doesn't it also sound like a grand charade of crisis management while the corporate lawyers circle their wagons, and paper shredders grind away all through the night?

After all, it's not like General Motors hasn't been here before.  For example, pickup truck owners may remember the infamous "side-saddle" gas tank defect which cost over 2,000 people their lives in fiery crashes from 1973 to 2009.  At the very least, in terms of producing dubious products, dragging their heels when it comes to fixing known defects, and otherwise misleading customers, GM has been no better than Ford and Chrysler.  It's become part of Detroit's disappointing aptitude for teaching millions of American consumers why foreign-branded automobiles represent a safer, better-built, longer-lasting, higher-resale value for the money. 

My last American-branded car was a 1999 Buick Regal.  I bought it brand-new, and it developed some annoying rattles practically upon leaving the dealership.  It had glow-in-the-dark instrumentation on the steering wheel that would become unnervingly warm to the touch.  But it was extremely comfortable, and it handled surprisingly well for its size.  I wasn't ready to trade it, but a woman plowed into the back of my Buick without even tapping her brakes, and its whole back end had to be re-built right up to the rear windshield, which amazingly, never even cracked.

Soon after I got my Buick back from the shop, a friend of mine got rear-ended in her car.  Her insurance agent advised her that even though they would pay to fix it, the crumple zones would never be as reliable as factory-built ones, so she bought a new car.  And I decided to do the same with my repaired Buick, since the way people drive down here in Texas, rear-end crashes are frightfully common.  I replaced the Buick with a Volkswagen Passat, and then have had two Honda Accords since then.  I suppose I'm now one of those people who used to try to buy American, but don't really miss our hometown cars now that I see how much better-built the foreign competition is.

I had purchased that Buick Regal after experiencing a disastrous ownership of Chevrolet's 1998 Malibu sedan.  Whereas my Buick merely rattled after I drove it off the dealer lot, my Malibu waited a couple of weeks before I noticed my driver's door window wouldn't close all the way.  There were about 1,000 miles on the car, and a patch of oil started collecting on the garage floor at home.  Then I began to have difficulty starting the engine.  There was something wrong with the instrument panel on the dashboard, too, but I can't remember what that was.

Time and time again, I took that Malibu back to the dealership, where I was fortunate to have an exceptionally modest salesman who also served as an assistant pastor at a small rural church.  I could tell he was trying to exercise his faith while working with me on my Malibu's issues.  We determined that the entire driver's door had been improperly assembled because its frame was misshapen, which was why the glass window wouldn't completely close.  The ignition problem couldn't be diagnosed, and the oil leak wouldn't go away.  The dealership and Chevrolet's district office kept trying to work on the car to no avail, with my embarrassed salesman driving loaner vehicles to where I worked so he could collect the Malibu and save me yet another trip to the dealership.

Finally, he pulled me aside, and advised me that the dealership would not fight me if I took GM to arbitration over the Malibu.  If you have good lemon laws in your state, did you know that you can file a request through your local Better Business Bureau office for a hearing?  The BBB can decide whether GM has to reimburse you for part or all of the purchase price of your vehicle, based on the severity of the problems, and how well the dealership has tried to fix them.  After my arbitration hearing at the BBB office in downtown Fort Worth, I was awarded the full purchase price of my Malibu, minus the depreciation that had accrued before its problems surfaced.

I thought that was fair, especially after the humiliating way I was treated by the Chevrolet representative who was on the conference call at the BBB with the arbitrator and myself.  That Chevy guy threw the book at me, accusing me of being too hard to please, and of being impatient with the dealership.  It was as if GM assumes that their customers should be willing to practically live at their dealership after purchasing a GM product!  He was insulting, rude, and borderline slanderous, but I could tell by the expressions on the face of the BBB guy, moderating the call, that the Chevy rep was just digging himself his own deep hole.  So finally, I just kept quiet, and let him keep digging.

After that atrocious experience, I vowed never to purchase a Chevrolet product again.  Or indeed, any GM product, if I could help it.  Fortunately, hardly any of the vehicles GM has been churning out lately have captured my attention, so I don't think I've missed much by buying anything-but-GM.

That changed, however, with the new Camaro and the redesigned Impala, two cars that I find stunning.  As it is, I don't have the money to get into the car market these days, so that's just as well.

And then this current problem with Chevy's Cobalts comes to the fore.

I wonder if a lot of Americans are like me, and thinking to themselves, "fool me once, shame on you... fool me twice, shame on me."

If Barra says she's trying to re-make GM into a customer-oriented company, she's got a long and winding road ahead of her.

All loyalties aside, in what brand of vehicle would she like to make that trip?  Thirteen of her company's customers thought they could make it in a Chevy Cobalt.  What Barra has to do is remind her thousands of employees that they're not just making widgets to satisfy a bunch of Wall Street investors.  Everyday people are entrusting their lives to every single product GM makes.

General Motors needs to learn that despite however diverse their customer base may be, the one thing all of their customers want GM's products to do is get them from Point A to Point B - safely.

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