General Motors Co. plans on Thursday to release the findings of a much anticipated investigation into why it delayed recalling defective cars linked to at least 13 deaths.
Chief Executive Mary Barra hired former U.S. Atty. Anton Valukas to conduct the internal probe and promised regulators and Congress an unflinching and public accounting of the automaker's safety failings.
The report is expected to detail why GM took a decade to recall about 2.6 million vehicles with a faulty ignition switch that shut off cars and their critical safety systems.
The automaker hired Valukas to investigate whether GM balked at fixing the cars because of the expense, and whether employees covered up the problem or hid key details from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The report is also expected to pinpoint when Barra herself learned of the problem. A longtime GM executive, Barra took the helm of the company in January. Barra has said she first heard about the switch issue late last year.
GM's internal inquiry seeks to get ahead of ongoing investigations by NHTSA, the Department of Justice and Congress into the ignition switch problem.
The report represents "progress, but not quite closure," said Christian Mayes, an auto industry analyst at Edward Jones.
GM still has to deal with the government investigations, product-liability lawsuits and the question of how to compensate crash victims or their families, Mayes said.
Still, the GM report could be an important step in restoring the company's credibility and integrity, he said.
"This voluntary investigation bought them time in having to answer detailed questions up to this point," Mayes said. "They could say we have this investigation underway. But now there should be details that shed light on what happened."
Much of the report is expected to deal with the nuts and bolts of GM's engineering and recall processes, said Alan Baum, an auto industry consultant.
"GM will say it has learned from this, and that it is already implementing the recommendations," Baum said.
Auto safety advocates will be looking for details about why the faulty switch was approved by GM's engineering staff for small cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion. GM no longer builds the models with the switch problem.
Drivers were killed or injured in the cars because the switch can suddenly cut off in certain conditions, such as driving on rough roads or when the driver has an especially heavy key ring. GM has warned drivers to operate the vehicles with only a single key until they are repaired.
So far, GM has repaired fewer than 100,000 of the millions of vehicles recalled because of the defective switch and said it could take at least until October to fix all the cars.
In 2001, GM engineers had two competing designs for the switch, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.
"GM approved and put into production a less safe and cheaper part," Ditlow said. "Valukas has to explain that."
The automaker should have chosen the other proposed system, which had a longer and stronger spring that required greater force to start and turn off the vehicles, Ditlow said.
In 2006, GM suddenly started to install the beefier design in the vehicles. But the company didn't change the part number or notify safety regulators that it made the change, Ditlow said.
"Valukas has to explain what triggered the change, and why didn't they change the part number," Ditlow said. "Not doing that makes the move look like a cover-up."
Changing the design would have caused the number of consumer complaints involving the car models to decline and may have partially hid the problem from safety regulators, Ditlow said.
"NHTSA won't open an investigation if they see a declining defect trend," Ditlow said. "Changing the part without changing the part number was an effort to deceive NHTSA."
The company should name the GM decision-makers involved and explain their actions, Ditlow said.
"How high up the management chain did this go?" he asked.
Ditlow said he believes that more than 13 people have died in accidents caused by the defective part, based on his organization's review of accident data. NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman also has said he believes the number of deaths will grow as the agency continues to investigate the problem.
Because of the delays, the company is offering free vehicles to owners of the recalled cars. So far it has paid for more than 62,000 free loaner vehicles to customers caught up in the ignition recall and who expressed safety concerns.
GM's ignition switch issue prompted the company to review and change its process for how it decides to recall cars.
It appointed Jeff Boyer to the new position of vice president for global vehicle safety, making him responsible for the safety systems of GM vehicles, evaluation of their safety performance and all recalls. It created a program that recognizes employees for making safety suggestions and speaking up when they see problems.
The automaker also hired an additional 35 product investigators for safety issues and has issued 29 recalls so far this year.
GM has recalled nearly 14 million vehicles so far this year, a record for the company. Other automakers, fearing they will be criticized for not moving fast enough to address safety defects, also are recalling vehicles at a record rate for the industry.
Toyota, for example, has called back 3.3 million vehicles this year; Ford has recalled 2.8 million.
Altogether, the industry has recalled more than 24 million vehicles in just the first five months of this year. That's more than the 22 million called back for all of last year and represents a pace likely to break the 30.8 million record set in 2004.