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Kiss Mirrors, Keys and a Cost-Based GM Culture Good-Bye

by Roger Lanctot | 4月 02, 2014

Against the depressing tableau of General Motors and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives sub-committee yesterday over the recent ignition switch recall two inspiring developments impacting vehicle design emerged. GM CEO Mary Barra noted to the panel GM’s consideration of bringing keyless, push-button start technology across its entire line up, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers separately petitioned NHTSA to relax its requirement for a driver side and rearview mirrors.

The proliferation of push-button start technology will obviously remove the electro-mechanical causal element behind the ignition switch failure in question. If there is a single positive element that can emerge from the entire recall debacle this may be it.No mechanical switch, means no ignition switch failure – at least not a mechanical one.

The AAM request for NHTSA to relax Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard #111 is intended to enable car makers to replace the driver-side rearview mirror and the internal rearview mirror with camera-based systems. The AAM request coincided with NHTSA’s last-minute decision (in the face of pending legal action) to announce the implementation plan for the rear-visibility mandate.

AAM’s statement: http://www.autoalliance.org/index.cfm?objectid=BE3624F0-B8F3-11E3-AB0B000C296BA163

Removing the driver-side mirror has been suggested by the design of Volkswagen’s XL1 plug-in diesel hybrid which has opted for cameras over mirrors to reduce drag and weight. Tesla, too, with the Model X, has been pushing for this change and joined the AAM's petition. Neither the XL1 nor the Model X will be street legal in the U.S. under current regulations.

At the Geneva Motor Show in March, Nissan demonstrated a camera-based rearview mirror system turning the in-cabin rearview mirror into a display with a panoramic view to the rear of the car. The GM Authority newsletter has reported that GM “is in the process of securing a trademark for the word ‘THRUVIEW.’”

According to GM Authority, the automaker filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office on Jan. 24, 2014 for a “motor vehicle rear view mirror that can also function as a display monitor to provide a panoramic rear view.”

On a less heartening note, yesterday’s hearing laid bare GM’s failure to resolve the ignition switch problem in a timely manner while NHTSA’s representative, David Friedman, blamed GM for failing to notify the agency of the problem. Consumer advocacy groups found fault with both GM and NHTSA. Both Barra and Friedman are freshman leaders of their respective organizations contributing to the inchoate feeling to the entire proceedings.

During the hearing members of Congress highlighted inconsistent communication between GM and its dealers and between dealers and consumers.  This is another challenge for Barra and GM to resolve.  In the midst of Tesla's challenge to the dealer model of selling cars, GM finds itself more dependent on dealers than it has ever been.  Perhaps this will lead to a re-evaluation of these relationships.

GM CEO Barra repeatedly referred in her testimony to the “new GM” emerging with her appointment and how the old cost-based culture – under which safety concerns were mitigated by cost issues - had been banished. Let’s hope NHTSA sees its own rebirth as a watch dog instead of a lap dog.

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