Yesterday the Volt was again a top automotive news story but not in a way that GM or Volt fans had hoped it would ever be.
As expected, GM CEO Dan Akerson and David Strickland, administrator for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration testified before a House subcommittee to answer allegations of impropriety and politically motivated covering up for the Volt.
The allegations were mostly made by Republicans led by Rep. Darrell Issa of California. Questions surrounded how GM and NHTSA dealt with the aftermath of a Volt side-impact crash test fire that started in June, three weeks after NHTSA parked it without discharging the battery.
In short, both those on the subcommittee and those asked to defend themselves accused each other of dishonest and unethical political motivations.
For his part, Akerson – himself a Republican – took a shot at critics for what he suggested were partisan attacks against a car and company President Obama has smiled upon.
“Unfortunately, there is one thing we did not engineer,” Akerson said. “Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features – we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag and that’s what it’s become.”
It is clear politics are involved, but who is in the wrong was the subcommittee’s question. The government still has a 32-percent stake in GM stock, and Issa commented on questionable relations between the Obama administration and U.S. automakers since 2009 taxpayer-funded financial relief was received.
“This unnatural relationship has blurred the lines between the public and private sector as President Obama touts the survival of General Motors as one of the top accomplishments of his administration,” Issa said, “On a policy level, this relationship raises serious questions about whether or not the administration is too heavily invested in the success of GM to be an effective regulator.”
The subcommittee focused more criticism on Strickland, asking also whether the government’s investment in GM – and negotiations about new, higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards – played a role in NHTSA waiting months before releasing information about the fire.
“This is about safety. This is about government’s role,” Issa said.
Strickland was pointedly asked how he had managed to omit disclosure of the June Volt fire when he had last appeared before the subcommittee in October.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican and the chair of the subcommittee, asked Strickland.
It was not until Bloomberg broke the story of a formal NHTSA investigation in November that the world knew, but Strickland said if NHTSA had said something during its preliminary investigation, it would have been improper or illegal without first verifying there was a real safety risk.
When NHTSA did announce its formal investigation, some Republicans and media pundits – particularly those already known as Volt and GM critics – said they smelled a rat.
Issa (photo taken previously).
When asked, Strickland denied that politics played a role in not disclosing the June fire sooner, but Republicans pursued allegations that the Obama administration might have directly intervened to protect the Volt’s reputation.
Akerson said that he had no talks with Obama administration officials about the fire.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, also a GM dealer, further asked Akerson if the Obama administration played a role in GM’s business. Akerson said since he has been at the helm, it has not.
“I will testify in front of the good Lord that this administration has never had a presence in the boardroom or any input in the operation of the business,” Akerson said.
Subcommittee members also asked Strickland whether GM or the Obama administration asked NHTSA to suppress the at-first informal investigation in months following the June fire.
“Absolutely not,” said Strickland.
After months of trying, in November NHTSA tested stand-alone Volt batteries and finally reproduced one post-crash fire. Akerson said the likelihood of it happening in the real world were slim.
Pursuing another line of questioning, Issa asked Akerson whether NHTSA’s response was “more aggressive or less aggressive” compared to a “typical catastrophic event” and Akerson answered it was “proportional.”
Although Issa characterized the June Volt incident as a “catastrophic event,” the actual degree of danger represented by a three-week-later fire is in question.
As has been reported for more than a month now, over 200,000 gasoline cars were involved in fires in the U.S. in 2010, but not one Volt has yet caught on fire outside of a test lab.
The extended-range electric Volt has been declared by NHTSA to be as safe as a combustion-powered car, but worries over “fire” have been said to have amplified reactions because EV technology is still new. Issa revealed this has also weighed into his stance.
“The truth is, they should have been more aggressive,” Issa said of NHTSA. “This is a brand-new car.”
So the House subcommittee is being more aggressive after the fact, effectively saying it is doing a public service in the name of safety and ensuring ethics in governmental oversight.
It is actually NHTSA’s public trust and responsibility to stand for integrity in roadway safety. As Issa and company say NHTSA dropped the ball, others have suggested the congressmen are micromanaging their fellow federal officials even as NHTSA has since signed off on the Volt completely.
NHTSA’s investigation specifically into the Volt’s battery safety was closed last week, partly in response to actions by GM which cooperated with NHTSA’s investigators and voluntarily reinforced the battery case and battery cooling system to allay fears.
But whether politics have blown the so called “Batterygate” issue beyond what it should have been or not, observers are saying the most near-catastrophic outcome has been to the public image for GM, NHTSA and the Volt.
“I do think there has been collateral damage. We’re going to have to work hard to get it back,” Akerson said of the Volt, echoing others, including Michigan-based auto industry analyst, Alan Baum, principal of Baum & Associates, in a Bloomberg interview this week.
“It’s not unlike a story that’s written that says somebody has committed a murder, and the next day they say, ‘Oh they didn’t, sorry,’” Baum said of news reports about the Volt’s battery possibly being a fire risk. “It’s been in the news.”
And it’s still in the news.
Next up on the House subcommittee’s NHTSA/GM inquiry agenda is it will attempt to compare similar events to see whether it can support its allegation that NHTSA and GM delayed overly long.
At this juncture, the House subcommittee’s statements indicate it believes there is yet reason to doubt, and its posture remains tantamount to declaring NHTSA guilty until proven innocent.
“We are disappointed,” Issa said, indicating he believes irresponsibility, negligence or worse by the highway safety agency is already settled. “NHTSA could have done a much better job” in the timing of the release of information following announcement of CAFE standards.
How NHTSA handled its discovery of the June Volt battery fire, Issa said, amounted to a “statutory cover-up, if you will.”
And though Issa and others are still intent on bearing down, observers noted Akerson altered his statements about the Volt being a political lightning rod, and left out some of the comments written in an advance copy of his testimony.
“The Volt seems, perhaps unfairly, to have become a surrogate for some to offer broader commentary on General Motors’ business prospects and administration policy,” said Akerson’s original written testimony which he did not actually speak to the subcommittee. “These factors should not be discounted as to why federal regulators opened an investigation into the Volt’s battery safety.”
Instead, his actual testimony included the remark about the Volt being a political punching bag, which perhaps sums it up just as well.
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