GM’s Recalls Reveal a Shocking Safety Crisis. Why Don’t Consumers Care?

A blog about business and economics.
June 17 2014 5:25 PM

GM Recalls Soar Past 20 Million. Why Don’t Consumers Care?

450376094-general-motors-ceo-mary-barra-briefs-the-news-media
Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, will testify in Congress on Wednesday.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In case you thought there couldn't possibly be another General Motors recall so soon, you're just not thinking big enough. On Monday, GM said it was recalling 3.36 million more cars. The cause: an ignition switch defect that could result in keys carrying extra weight (read: a keychain) to slip out of position and shut the vehicle off abruptly during "some jarring event."

Alison Griswold Alison Griswold

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

 

For those who are just tuning into the GM recall saga, some quick facts. GM has issued 44 recalls in North America this year alone. More than 20 million vehicles have been affected worldwide—a tremendous figure that surpasses total annual vehicle sales in the U.S. The recall pace has snowballed since the start of the year, with only two issued in January, but 14 so far this June for some 4.2 million vehicles. With half of the year left to go, GM is already looking at $2 billion in total recall-related charges.

Advertisement

While some recalls have been over more severe issues than others, the breadth and scope of GM's fiasco this year reveals a shocking safety crisis. At its current rate, GM is on track to shatter the entire auto industry's record for most vehicles affected in recalls in a single year, explains Michael Schultz, an industry analyst at the Center for Automotive Research. "It's unprecedented," says Schultz, who also expects that the company isn't done yet. "I anticipate there's going to be more until they have literally nothing else possible to issue a recall on," he says.

GM's latest recall is eerily reminiscent of a deadly ignition switch defect that led it to recall 2.6 million cars in February and March. In that case, GM said that if the keys in the cars were at all jostled, the vehicles' engines might turn off and shut down crucial systems like airbags and brakes; the defect has been linked to at least 13 deaths and 54 crashes. Earlier this month, an internal investigation denounced GM for a decade of negligence in addressing a problem it knew was serious. Fifteen employees have since been fired.

The scandalous handling of that severe defect has also drawn the attention of the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors have begun interviewing current and former GM employees as part of a criminal probe into the matter and at least 11 state attorneys general are investing GM as well. Mary Barra, the chief executive of GM, is due to testify in Congress on Wednesday about why the company waited so long to recall the first 2.6 million vehicles with a faulty ignition switch.

Yet consumers don't seem to be paying much attention to the GM debacle. Despite the slew of recalls, GM's monthly sales in May rose to their highest level since August 2008. Sales of vehicles to individual buyers were up 10 percent and total sales increased 13 percent for the company's best May in seven years. "While there's a lot of media attention that's negative with all the recalls, it doesn't affect sales at all," Schultz explains. "Recalls have become so frequent as to just be background noise to consumers."

Maybe that's not such a bad thing when companies are issuing recalls for, say, a sticker inside the car bearing the wrong recommended tire pressure out of an abundance of caution. But the ignition-switch defect is far more serious—and the onus is on consumers to bring their cars in for repair. So until GM works out its kinks, this background noise is something drivers shouldn't tune out.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.