CEO Barra on GM and recalls: 'Change has already happened'

Nine months into her tenure as head of General Motors, chief executive Mary Barra said the auto company is well on its way to replacing the faulty ignition switches that lead to the recall of some 2.6 million defective GM cars.

Of those 2.6 million vehicles recalled with the faulty ignition switches, about one million have been repaired and replacement parts will be manufactured and ready for customers by the beginning of October, Barra told CNBC Sunday.

The company is working to reach affected customers through social media, direct mailing and advertising. "I'd like to have them all done by the end of the year. We're going to work to that goal," Barra told CNBC. "But again ultimately it's the customer who decides," she said.

"I want every vehicle fixed, and I've been clear about that all along," CEO Barra said. "But again ultimately it's the consumer who makes that choice."

In a wide-ranging interview that touched on auto innovation and coming shifts in autonomous vehicles, Barra also addressed the challenge of changing corporate culture inside GM that has been rocked by numerous vehicle recalls.

Earlier this year, an internal investigation offered tough words on GM's safety record, incompetence and troubled corporate culture.

"I do think change has already happened," GM CEO Barra told CNBC.

"I mean that was a very difficult day, when I shared that with all GM employees across the globe. They took it to heart. I mean I could see it in their faces. I've gotten hundreds of emails from employees around the world. So they are open to change and they want to make sure it never happens again," she said.

Barra also told CNBC she has no regrets retaining GM Chief Counsel Mike Milliken. In a congressional hearing in July, U.S. senators blasted Barra for not firing Milliken for the way his legal staff handled the investigation into accidents involving vehicles that were eventually recalled.

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The future of autonomous driving

Mary Barra
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
Mary Barra

GM CEO Barra made the comments during the World Congress gathering on Intelligent Transport Systems in Detroit.

Beyond recalls, Barra also outlined a 2-year "vehicle to vehicle" plan that includes getting vehicles to talk to one another, as well as to the broader infrastructure of autos.

Pockets of the industry already are investigating autonomous driving. Some experts see a future where driverless vehicles will cruise less-populated U.S. highways and roads, with a driver taking over as deliveries and vehicles reach densely populated regions.

"It is something that takes some getting used to," GM CEO Barra told CNBC.

"That's why it's so important as we move toward autonomous driving—and we believe it will happen in steps over the next several years—that customers understand, and that they understand the benefits of the technology because it's a pathway to get to autonomous," Barra said.

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The chief executive added technology advances must be balanced with vehicle affordability to lift sales. Affordability is a growing issue for the auto sector, as many average auto consumer loans exceed five years—and climbing.

U.S. auto sales recently reached their highest levels since 2006. "It's been this kind of steady climb" since 2008, 2009 and 2010, Barra said. "I think we're going to continue to see that," Barra said.

By CNBC's Phil LeBeau and Heesun Wee