GM's Akerson says Chevy Volt not designed to be a political punching bag
In a politically charged Congressional Hearing held today, the safety of the Chevy Volt, and the integrity of the NHTSA, was called into question by members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The sometimes heated hearing gave both the NHTSA and GM an opportunity to defend their investigation and response to last summers Chevy Volt crash test fire.
The hearing began with NHTSA Director David Strickland, testifying on the NHTSA's investigation, and it was Strickland who received the brunt of attacks by some committee members, primarily the Chairman Rep. Jordan, Rep. Mike Kelly, and Rep. Issa (all Republicans). Stricklands testimony was followed by GM's CEO Dan Akerson, testifying on GM's role, GM's resurgence as a company, and the history of the Volt project. Those two were followed by John German, a Senior Fellow with the Council on Clean Transportation who gave testimony on the CAFE Standards negotiation as well as the background of lithium ion battery safety.
While several talked about the politically charged scene none captured it better than GM's CEO Akerson when he said GM's engineers had not designed the Chevy Volt to be a political punching bag.
While a huge variety of topics were discussed, a thread throughout the hearing was the sense of Trust being Violated. Specifically Trust in the Integrity of the NHTSA in their handling of the Chevy Volt fire controversy. The elements of the eroded trust were represented by the sort of questions asked, which appear here in bold.
What did the NHTSA know and when did they know it? What was the timeline of discovering the cause of the fire? Why did it take six months before disclosing the fire to the public? Both NHTSA's Strickland and GM's Akerson answered these questions to show there was no wrong-doing, but their answers did not appear to satisfy Rep's Jordan, Kelly or Issa each of whom repeatedly hammered Strickland and to a lesser extent Akerson.
Disclosure to the public of the Chevy Volt crash test fire occurred with a November 11 Bloomberg News article, and was closely followed by announcements from NHTSA and GM. Rep. Jordan described this as NHTSA holding out on making an announcement until being "outed" by Bloomberg's report. However NHTSA Administrator Strickland maintained that the NHTSA was very close to making their announcement anyway, and that NHTSA's personnel had worked with Bloomberg's reporters on ensuring the facts were reported correctly. Strickland went on to describe that prior to November 11 they were involved with preliminary pre-investigation work necessary to discover just how severe was the risk posed by this one fire. The NHTSA has a statutory duty to disclose risks to the public, but that statutory duty also extends to determining actual risk before disclosing a risk to the public. In other words, the NHTSA's role is not to shout FIRE in a crowded theater if there's no actual fire, but to only disclose actual risks based on data they collect from investigations.
Administrator Strickland explained it would have been illegal for NHTSA to disclose a risk if there was no actual risk.