DETROIT — General Motors CEO Mary Barra is reaching out directly to customers, as GM tries to counter bad publicity from a recall of cars with a potentially deadly ignition switch defect.
GM posted five videos of Barra on its website Wednesday answering questions about the recall of 1.6 million compact cars to fix the ignition switches. The company also said Barra listened in on customer calls for about a half hour last Thursday at the automaker's suburban Detroit call center, although none of the callers spoke about the recall.
GM has acknowledged it knew about the problem for at least a decade but did not recall the cars until last month. The problem is linked to at least 12 deaths.
In the short videos, Barra assures viewers that the compact cars are safe, as long as they remove everything from their key rings. GM has said that weight dangling from the rings can cause the ignition to slide out of the run position into accessory or off. That shuts down the engine and disables power-assisted steering, power brakes and air bags. As a result, a driver can lose control of their car.
Barra, who became CEO Jan. 15, also tells people that replacement ignition switches will be available starting April 7, so GM can start fixing the cars. She says there will be enough parts available to fix all the cars by October, she said.
On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Two weeks later it added 842,000 Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). The recalled cars have the same ignition switches.
The company has told dealers to offer loaner cars to drivers until the repairs can be made. It has received 9,000 requests for cars and has granted several thousand, spokesman Klaus-Peter Martin said. He did not know an exact number. But GM didn't tell owners about the rental car offer in its recall letters.
Molly English-Bowers, 52, who owns a 2007 Cobalt, said has removed extra items from her keychain, but is frustrated by the wait for the replacement parts and wasn't offered a loaner car by her dealership.
"What if something happens while I'm waiting?" asked English-Bowers, who lives in Liverpool, N.Y., and is the communications director for a local office of the Service Employees International Union.
A Texas law firm is disputing Barra's contention that the cars are safe to drive if weight is removed from the key rings. The firm filed a federal court lawsuit asking a judge to order GM to tell customers to park the cars until they are repaired.
The Hilliard Munoz Gonzales firm says in its motion that GM told customers in a letter that an empty key chain may not help because rough road conditions or other jarring could cause the cars to lose engine power, as well as power steering and air bags, the motion said.
Barra is preparing to testify before Congress on the recall. A Senate subcommittee announced Wednesday that Barra will appear at a hearing on April 2. She is also speaking to a House subcommittee on April 1.
Martin said Barra also plans to make periodic visits to the call center.