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GM appoints safety chief to deal with mounting recall crisis

Management ChangeVehiclesProduct RecallsGeneral MotorsScienceMedia IndustryMary Barra

Beset by criticism that it did not move quickly enough to fix an ignition switch problem linked to 12 fatal crashes, General Motors on Tuesday named a vehicle safety chief charged with identifying and resolving product safety issues.

Jeff Boyer, who has held a range of engineering and safety positions at GM, will become vice president of global vehicle safety and will oversee the development of GM vehicle safety systems, safety performance and recalls.

The move comes after the automaker recalled more than 3 million cars in the last month, including 1.5 million Monday, to fix a variety of problems with ignition switches, air bags and wiring.

“This new role elevates and integrates our safety process under a single leader so we can set a new standard for customer safety with more rigorous accountability,” said Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive. “If there are any obstacles in his way, Jeff has the authority to clear them. If he needs any additional resources, he will get them.”

Boyer will provide regular and frequent updates on vehicle safety to Barra, senior management and the GM board of directors.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers in the vehicles they drive,” said Boyer. “Today’s GM is committed to this, and I’m ready to take on this assignment.”

The appointment comes as GM faces numerous probes into years of delays in fixing the ignition issue.

GM issued recalls only last month — more than a decade after first learning of the ignition issue, the automaker has acknowledged. The faulty switch could shut off the car while driving, disabling safety systems such as air bags and antilock brakes. GM says the issue is connected to 12 deaths, but an analysis by an independent safety group said it could account for as many as 303 fatalities.

Appointing a safety chief is consistent Mary Barra’s aggressive efforts to resolve the recall crisis, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Automotive.

“Boyer seems to be a good choice for this position considering his past experience in quality and safety,” Brinley said. “Ensuring that he has access to the top leadership of the corporation gives his position credibility.”

Barra, who became GM’s chief executive in January, has ordered a top-to-bottom safety review.

GM released a video of Barra's comments to GM employees Monday, in which she outlined the challenges facing the automaker and assessed the gravity of the company's mistakes.

“These are serious developments that shouldn't surprise anyone,” Barra told employees. “After all, something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened.”

“As a member of the GM family and as a mom with a family of my own this really hits home for me,” Barra said.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and GM have come under heavy fire from lawmakers and safety advocates for not acting sooner. The Department of Justice and committees in the U.S. House and Senate have opened investigations in the matter. GM will probably face at least a $35-million civil fine.

The tab could be much higher, said Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays, nothing there is “the potential for $2 billion to $3 billion for plaintiff settlements and/or federal fines.”

“The weeks ahead will see congressional hearings, as well as fresh attacks from creative tort lawyers in multiple jurisdictions,” Johnson said. “The continued negative headlines are likely to weigh heavily on the stock.”

He said the moves by Barra demonstrate that “GM is trying to dig deep to the root of the problem” to develop “a more engineering-driven focus on products than had characterized GM in the past.”

But in the short term, that won’t help the owners of many of the recalled vehicles. Drivers of cars with the ignition problem won't be able to get their cars fixed for months. Production of the replacement part won't start until next month, and it will take until October to produce all the new switches needed to fix the recalled cars, GM officials said.

The ignition switch problem affects 1.6 million cars globally. The models include 2003-07 Saturn Ions, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstices, 2006-07 Saturn Sky models, and 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models. The cars all share the same ignition component; none of them remains in production.

Previously Boyer was responsible for the certification of GM vehicle safety and crashworthiness. He holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Kettering University and a master of business administration from Michigan State University.

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