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Opinion: A Waste of a Good Man’s Time

Safety is secondary when politics becomes theater.

by on Jan.30, 2012

GM CEO Dan Akerson at last week's Congressional hearing on the Chevy Volt.

So much of Washington is political theater, meant to do nothing except entertain, advance political ambition, or provide political cover.

Consider what happened here last Wednesday.

The augustly titled House Subcommittee on Government Reform and Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending called a hearing.

Was it to congratulate Detroit’s chief executives and workers on busting their tails to save the domestic automobile industry, the major component of American manufacturing? Was it to congratulate General Motors Co., three short years after going through bankruptcy, for regaining the global sales crown? Was it even to conduct a cursory review on how GM, 26.5% owned by the federal government, has been using taxpayer money?

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No. It was none of those things. Instead, the Republican-controlled subcommittee, which has subpoena power,  was “investigating” already explained and thoroughly understood, by anyone with the practical sense to understand such things, latent fires occurring in a few plug-in electric Chevrolet Volts days and weeks AFTER they had been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The aim off the hearing was not to elucidate. Nor was it really to investigate. It was to embarrass the Obama administration, which had provided the money to keep GM and Chrysler going through bankruptcy and hard economic times and which has been pushing the development of electric vehicles.

It was a “gotcha” hearing that got nothing except, perhaps, some embarrassing air time for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) who led the hearing and subcommittee chairman Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) who did their best to embarrass Obama administration officials and GM Chairman Daniel F. Ackerson, all to no avail.

(For news coverage of the hearing, Click Here.)

The tone of the hearings could be summed up with Jordan’s questioning off David Strickland, NHTSA administrator, in which Jordan demanded to know if the Obama administration was providing political cover for GM in the Volt battery fires.

Strickland was straightforward in response. “We pulled no punches” during the investigation of the Volt battery fires, said he, “absolutely not.”

Jordan responded that he found Strickland’s answer “deeply troubling,” but said nothing to prove that he had adequate reason to be upset.

Then came what the Republicans apparently thought would be their golden moment of publicity, perhaps recalling the acute embarrassment their party caused Detroit executives that time in 2008 when they appeared on Capitol Hill, hats in hand.

But this time was different. They were questioning a more-business-like-than-thou GM Chairman Ackerson who, intentionally or not, slit the panels political throats with the efficiency of a butcher who knows he’s working with prime meat.

Ackerson pointed out that the battery technology in the Volt has been under development since the 1990s with the introduction of the EV1. He said the Volt has won the industry’s top award, including the Motor Trend Car of the Year, Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year, and the North American Car of the Year.

The Volt is among the safest cars on the road, Ackerson said. Ninety-three percent of current Volt customers report highest customer satisfaction with the car, he said.

But what about those fires? The panel wanted to know. Ackerson’s response was so delicious I’ll let you read it yourselves. Said he:

“Volt customers have driven 25 million miles without a single, similar incident….(The reported fires were all the results of NHTSA tests and occurred) “not three minutes, not three minutes, not three days, but three weeks” after the crash tests, Ackerson said.

But that tremendous lag time between crash and fire, during which any crash victims presumably would have been removed from danger, GM and NHTSA thoroughly investigated the incidents and made necessary fixes, Ackerson said.

“We engineered the 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 interest first. We engineered the Volt to show the world what great vehicles we make at GM,” said Ackerson, who added that the Volt is functioning as engineered.

And then he pulled out a knife, imported from Detroit:

“Although we loaded the Volt with state-of-the-art safety features, we did not engineer the Volt to become a political punching bag. Sadly, that is what it has become.”

There wasn’t much panel members could say in response to that.  Nor could they ding Ackerson for flying to Washington in a corporate jet. He drove to Capitol Hill in his personally owned Volt from his home in Northern Virginia.




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