It's Shocking That GM Is Only Now Making Safety Its Top Priority

Mary barra senate testimony general motors recallREUTERS/Gary CameronGM CEO Mary Barra

Given that General Motors has recalled 30 million vehicles so far this year — twice as many cars and trucks as were sold in the entire U.S. in 2013 — the company’s second-quarter earnings were reasonably stable, with just a slight miss on earnings. Ongoing recall issues have already cost GM over $US2 billion, with maybe another billion still to come, so a big question in the auto industry is when this is going affect the carmaker’s business.

Maybe never, as GM is still making money, expanding globally, and holding the line on its U.S market share at around 17%. Even Europe, a nightmare for company since its bankruptcy, is starting to turn the corner. If there’s one piece of the GM genetic code that survived the 2008-2009 Detroit meltdown, it’s the ability of biggest of the Big Three to endure some absolutely hellacious hits.

Unfortunately, another strand of Old GM DNA that’s only now being modified is the company’s ambivalent attitude toward safety. On GM’s Q2 earning call today, CEO Mary Barra used the lion’s share of her time to stress that the company has really and truly gotten religion when it comes to not killing people. This is admirable, and Barra has handled her trial by fire as Detroit’s first female CEO about as well as could be expected, given the unprecedented nature of the recalls.

But let’s get real: When people buy cars, safety is pretty high on their list of concerns. Gone are the days when safety-obsessed consumers felt they had to purchase tank-like Volvos and Mercedes to avoid death or dismemberment. Even though more than 30,000 people are killed every year on American roads, you walk onto a dealer lot in 2014 thinking that even small cars have enough safety features to save your life in a crash. And according to a 2012 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, our expectations are backed up by the numbers.

GM has a pretty good safety record these days, but it’s bizarre to hear the CEO say, as Barra did, that GM won’t be satisfied by solving its current problems — as if the only thing that can spur a corporate obsession with safety is a recall of epic proportions and few contrite visits by the CEO to Capitol Hill. Nor does it instill confidence in the GM brand to think that a 105-year-old company has finally gotten around to appointing a VP-level executive, Jeff Boyer, as Safety Czar.

“We are dramatically enhancing our approach to safety,” Barra told Wall Street analysts today. To which one wants to reply: It’s about time.

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