What a surprise. Today's Congressional hearing over the Chevrolet Volt fire and the resulting investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration turned out to be contentious.
The hearing took place in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending. Just from the title of the event – "Volt Vehicle Fire: What did NHTSA Know and When Did They Know It?" – it was plain to see that chairman Darrell Issa was not looking to mess around. Issa had General Motors CEO Dan Akerson, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland and John German (Senior Fellow and Program Director at the International Council on Clean Transportation) at his disposal, but he clearly didn't always like what they had to say. Issa and other Republicans questioned the "unnatural relationship" between the Obama Administration and GM as well as why it took NHTSA so many months to reveal the fire in November when it happened in June.
GM's Akerson stood up for the Volt, saying that the fire that's caused so much commotion only happened "after putting the battery through lab conditions that no driver would experience in the real world," according to his prepared remarks. Strickland said NHTSA "pulled no punches" in the Volt fire investigation – which recently ended after finding the Volt to be a safe car – but Issa was having none of it. He told Strickland: "I hear you, I don't believe you."
You can find the official Congressional website about the hearing (which includes a video of the entire session) here. The subcommittee's staff report, "Government Motors: A Preliminary Report on the Effects of Bailouts and Politics on the Obama Administration's Ability to Protect American Consumers" is available as a PDF. Be careful when reading it, though, as it starts by subtly misleading the reader. The report says:
A bit of research shows that the $7,500 tax credit was first put into law in the 2007-2008 Congress with the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008, well before there was an Obama Administration.
Moreover, in the case of GM, the [Obama] Administration has offered substantial taxpayer funded subsidies to encourage production of the Volt. ... It has also extended a significant subsidy to encourage consumers to purchase the vehicle, offering buyers of the Volt a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 per vehicle.
DETROIT – General Motors Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson testified Wednesday before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's formal investigation into post-crash test fires in Volt batteries and closing of a NHTSA Preliminary Evaluation.
(Speaker's words are definitive)
Good morning and thank you Chairman Jordan and Ranking Members Cummings and Kucinich. I welcome the opportunity to testify today and stand behind a car that all of us at GM are proud of.
Please allow me to start with some Volt history:
GM unveiled the Volt concept at the January 2007 Detroit Auto Show. In June of 2008, the "old GM's" Board of Directors approved the Volt project for production well before the bankruptcy and infusion of government funds.
The battery story goes back much farther to the early 1990s with GM's extensive work on the EV1.
Drawing on that experience, we engineered the Volt to be a winner on the road and in customers' hearts.
Today, I'm proud to say the Volt is performing exactly as we engineered it...
...In its first year, Volt garnered the Triple Crown of industry awards: Motor Trend Car of the Year; Automobile Magazine's Automobile of the Year; and, North American Car of the Year;
...Volt is among the safest cars on the road – earning 5 Stars for occupant safety and a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety;
...And, 93 percent of Volt owners report the highest customer satisfaction with their car -- more than any other vehicle and the highest ever recorded in the industry.
Beyond the accolades, the Volt's importance to GM and our country's long term prospects is far reaching.
We engineered Volt to be the only EV that you can drive across town or across the country without fear of being stranded when the battery power is drained.
You can go 35 miles, and in some cases much more, on a single charge... which for 80 percent of American drivers is their total driving range.
After that, a small gas engine extends your range to 375 miles before you have to recharge or re-fill.
But, if the Volt message boards are any indication, there's some real one-upmanship going on out there – with customers reporting going months and thousands of miles without stopping once at a gas pump.
No other current EV can do this or 'generate' that much passion with its drivers.
We engineered Volt to give drivers a choice- to use energy produced in the United States rather than oil from places that may not always put America's best interests first.
And, we engineered Volt to show the world what great vehicles we make at General Motors.
Unfortunately, there is one thing we did not engineer. Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features -- we did not engineer the Volt to be a political punching bag.
And that, sadly, is what it's become.
For all of the loose talk about fires, we are here today because tests by regulators resulted in battery fires under lab conditions that no driver would experience in the real world.
In fact, Volt customers have driven over 25 million miles without a single, similar incident.
In one test, the fire occurred seven days after a simulated crash. In another, it took three weeks after the test. Not three minutes. Not three hours. Not three days. Three weeks.
Based on those test results, did we think there was an imminent safety risk? No.
Or, as one of our customers put it: if they couldn't cut him out of the vehicle in two or three weeks, he had a bigger problem to worry about.
However, given those test results, GM had a choice on how we would react. It was an easy call.
We put our customers first. We moved fast and with great transparency to engineer a solution.
We contacted every Volt owner and offered them a loaner car until the issue was settled. And if that wasn't enough, we offered to buy the car back.
We assembled a team of engineers who worked non-stop to develop a modest enhancement to the battery system to address the issue.
We'll begin adding the enhancement on the line and in customers' cars in a few weeks.
And in doing so, we took a 5-star rated vehicle and made it even safer.
Nonetheless, these recent events have cast an undeserved, damaging light on a promising new American technology that we are exporting around the world, right from Detroit.
As the Wall Street Journal wrote in its Volt review: We should suspend our rancor and savor a little American pride. A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet.
The Volt is safe. It's a marvelous machine. It represents so much of what is right about General Motors and, frankly, about American ingenuity and manufacturing.
I look forward to taking your questions.
General Motors Co. (NYSE:GM, TSX: GMM) and its partners produce vehicles in 30 countries, and the company has leadership positions in the world's largest and fastest-growing automotive markets. GM's brands include Chevrolet and Cadillac, as well as Baojun, Buick, GMC, Holden, Isuzu, Jiefang, Opel, Vauxhall and Wuling. More information on the company and its subsidiaries, including OnStar, a global leader in vehicle safety, security and information services, can be found at http://www.gm.com.