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By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

General Motors Co. plans to release the findings of a much-anticipated investigation into why it delayed recalling defective cars linked to at least 13 deaths.

Chief Executive Mary Barra is scheduled to brief employees Thursday on the results of a three-month probe by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas.

The report is expected to detail why GM failed to recall about 2.6 million vehicles with a faulty ignition switch, even though the automaker knew more than a decade ago that the switch could unexpectedly shut off cars and disable critical features such as air bags and power steering.

The automaker hired Valukas to investigate whether GM balked at fixing the cars because of the expense and whether employees covered up the problem and hid key details from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

When Barra learned of the problem is among the key findings expected to be revealed. Barra, a longtime GM executive, took the helm of the company in January. Barra said she first heard about the switch issue late last year.

GM also is the target of NHTSA, Justice Department and congressional probes into the ignition switch problem. The switch can shift, suddenly turning off in certain conditions, such as driving on rough roads or when the driver has an especially heavy key ring. GM has warned drivers to operate the vehicles with only a single key.

Auto safety advocates will be looking for details about why the faulty switch was approved by GM’s engineering staff for small cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion. GM no longer builds the models with the switch problem.

The engineers had two competing designs for the switch back in 2001, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.

“GM approved and put into production a less safe and cheaper part,” Ditlow said. “Valukas has to explain that.”

The automaker should have used its design for a more robust system, which had a longer and stronger spring that required greater force to start and turn off the vehicles, Ditlow said.

In 2006, GM suddenly started to install the beefier design in the vehicles. But the company didn’t change the part number or notify safety regulators that it made the change, Ditlow said.

“Valukas has to explain what triggered the change and why didn’t they change the part number,” Ditlow said “Not doing that makes the move look like a cover-up.”

Changing the design would have caused the number of reports involving the car models to decline and may have partially hid the problem from safety regulators, Ditlow said.

“NHTSA won’t open an investigation if they see a declining defect trend,” Ditlow said. “Changing the part without changing the part number was an effort to deceive NHTSA.”

“I want to know who approved all of this,” Ditlow said. “How high up the management chain did this go?”

Ditlow said that based on his review of NHTSA data, he believes more than 13 people have died in accidents caused by the defective part.

NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman also has said he believes the number of deaths will grow as the agency continues to investigate the problem.

So far, GM has repaired less than 100,000 of the millions of vehicles recalled because of the defective switch and says it could take at least until October to fix all the cars.

Because of the delays, the company is offering free vehicles to owners of the recalled cars. So far it has paid for more than 62,000 free loaner vehicles to customers caught up in the ignition recall and who expressed safety concerns with driving their cars.

GM’s ignition switch issue prompted the company to review and change its process for how it decides to recall cars.

It appointed Jeff Boyer to the new position of vice president for global vehicle safety, making him responsible for the safety systems of GM vehicles, evaluation of their safety performance and all recalls. It created a program that recognizes employees for making safety suggestions and speaking up when they see problems.

The automaker also hired an additional 35 product investigators for safety issues and has issued 29 recalls so far this year.

GM has recalled nearly 14 million vehicles so far this year, a record for the company. Other automakers, fearing they will be criticized for not moving fast enough to address safety defects, also are recalling vehicles at a record rate for the industry.

Toyota, for example, has called back 3.3 million vehicles this year; Ford has recalled 2.8 million.

Altogether, the industry has recalled more than 24 million vehicles in just the first five months of this year. That’s more than the 22 million called back for all of last year and represents a pace likely to break the 30.8 million record set in 2004.

AFP Photo/Mark Ralston

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