General Motors woes
What do you recall?
GM is forced to confront its faults
WHEN Mary Barra took the wheel at General Motors in January she inherited a company in good shape.
Mary Barra 在二月份接掌通用汽车时，公司运转态势良好。
Five years after bankruptcy, its profits were exceeding expectations and its share price was rising.
But the new boss's to-do list was long: fixing GM's loss-making European arm, keeping up momentum in China amid signs of a slowdown and rejuvenating the product line.
Ms Barra's predecessor, Dan Akerson, warned her that she would also face “curve balls”.
Barra女士的前任Dan Akerson 告诫她可能也会面临“曲线球”。
The first has arrived sooner than she might have expected.
What appeared to be a routine recall in mid-February of about 800,000 older models, linked to a faulty ignition switch, has turned out to be anything but.
The number of cars recalled has leapt to more than 2.6m.
The company's inept handling of a safety problem that first became apparent a decade ago is now linked to the deaths of at least 13 motorists.
Called before Congress on April 1st to answer for GM's failings Ms Barra said she was “deeply sorry” but insisted that the post-bankruptcy “new GM” was not like the “old GM”, which had failed to deal with the ignition switches for years.
Politicians and the public alike want to know how such a problem could have remained unaddressed for so long.
Cars are becoming ever more complex machines, with thousands of mechanical and electronic parts.
Recalls are not uncommon.
Last year it happened to 22m vehicles in America, compared with 18m in 2012.
In fact, GM was one of only three brands that recalled fewer vehicles than it sold.
Niggling problems, like squeaks or rattles, that do not affect safety are more common still.
They may be fixed at a routine service; the owner may never know.
The growing number of recalls is testament to an improving system for picking up faults.
But it is very complicated.
Dealers must record replacements of parts under warranty.
The carmaker needs to spot the trend, recognise it as a problem and then determine whether or not it is a design fault that requires wholesale replacement.
It relies on accurate recording of every warranty replacement in every region, says Andrew Bergbaum of AlixPartners, a firm of consultants.
This system appears to have broken down at “old GM”.
Ms Barra needs to find out why.
At the heart of the matter is a widely used ignition switch that has a tendency to slip from the “on” position to “off” if a driver uses a heavy keychain or bounces down a rough road.
A modification was made in 2008 to prevent the problem, which can lead to the engine shutting off, disabling the airbags.
But despite a growing list of crashes and deaths, GM failed to order a recall for a component that would have cost a few dollars at most.
This is odd.
Most carmakers want to identify and fix problems speedily despite having to bear the cost of buying and fitting a new component.
A small part can do great harm, if bad publicity leads to reputational corrosion, lost sales and litigation, which in America can include hefty punitive damages.
Appearing to put profits before safety is also liable to batter a firm's shares, as GM has discovered.
So far Ms Barra has handled the situation well.
She seems to have acted as soon as she found out something was awry.
And she has borrowed strategies from Toyota, which was forced into recalling more than 10m vehicles in 2009 and 2010 after worrying instances of “unintended acceleration”.
Akio Toyoda, Toyota's boss, also appeared before Congress, contrite and apologetic.
GM, like Toyota, has appointed a worldwide safety tsar to cut through the bureaucracy that may have delayed action on the faulty switch.
And in a frenzy of housecleaning, GM has recalled another 2m vehicles in America alone.
GM looks set to accept moral, if not legal, responsibility.
The terms of its exit from bankruptcy give immunity to lawsuits for injuries arising beforehand.
But GM is likely to compensate survivors and victims' families anyway.
Toyota had a terrible year after its big recalls, battered by mounting costs and falling sales.
But it has since regained the lost ground.
It is not yet clear how much of a hammering GM will take.
But hours before Ms Barra's meeting with Congress, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety issued a coveted “Top Safety Pick” endorsement for the new Chevrolet Malibu, one of a growing number of well-received cars from GM.
That suggests it is at least on the road to redemption.