General Motors CEO Mary Barra apologizes, appoints new safety czar. Is it enough?

General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra appointed Jeff Boyer as the automaker's new head of safety Tuesday in an effort to reverse course following recent safety issues affecting millions of GM vehicles. 

Carlos Osorio/AP/File
General Motors CEO Mary Barra addresses the media during a roundtable meeting with journalists in Detroit. Ms. Barra appointed Jeff Boyer as GM's new head of safety Tuesday.

General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra announced Tuesday the hiring of a new vehicle safety chief who will be charged with helping the automaker reverse course after an avalanche of high-profile safety issues.

Jeff Boyer was named the company’s vice president of global vehicle safety, the day after GM announced three separate safety recalls affecting 1.5 million cars manufactured and sold in the US. Mr. Boyer has been with General Motors for nearly 40 years and has held several senior safety and engineering positions within the company.

In addition to having “global responsibility for the safety development of GM vehicle systems, confirmation and validation of safety performance, as well as post-sale safety activities, including recalls,” according to GM’s announcement, Boyer will communicate regularly with Ms. Barra and the rest of GM’s senior management on matters of vehicle safety.

“Jeff’s appointment provides direct and ongoing access to GM leadership and the Board of Directors on critical customer safety issues,” said Barra in a statement. “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. 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 takes on the task of helping repair a free-falling safety reputation for the world’s second-largest automaker. In addition to yesterday’s recalls, Barra released a video message to employees apologizing for the company’s slow response to a faulty ignition switch problem linked to at least 31 accidents and 13 fatalities. GM didn’t recall the affected vehicles until last month, though it knew of the issue for at least a decade.  

“Something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened,” Barra said in the video. “We will be better because of this tragic situation if we seize the opportunity. And I believe we will do just that.”

So far, GM’s investors have been mostly unfazed by the week’s events; The automaker’s shares were up 1.34 percent in afternoon trading Tuesday.

General Motors’ recent woes come just as the automaker was finally shaking off its last big public controversy. The US Treasury Department sold the last of its GM stock this past December, ending the federal government bailout of the automaker after four-and-a-half years and $12 billion in taxpayer money needed to keep GM afloat. Barra was tapped as GM’s next CEO a day later, a widely praised move that made her the first woman to head a major US automaker.

Moving forward, the publicity for GM is likely to get worse before it gets better: The Justice Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are investigating GM’s handling of the ignition issue, and at least one large-scale class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of car owners. Barra expects to have to testify before Congress as part of the investigation, but for the moment, GM is not admitting liability in any accidents that occurred before 2009, according to press remarks the GM CEO made Tuesday. 

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