A key adviser to GM CEO Mary Barra confirmed that the maker is closely studying the Toyota case and expects to be under the microscope for at least several more years. But it isn't alone. A veteran Detroit auto industry official, speaking without official authorization, summed it up by noting that the recall "system is working. It's providing the pressure and people know what will happen if they don't respond."
In many cases, it means that relatively minor issues that might have been ignored—or been the subject of less aggressive "service bulletins"—in the past are now triggering full-fledged recalls.
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"Hiding a defect will eventually come back to haunt you," observed Don Tanner, a reputation specialist with Detroit-based consulting firm TannerFriedman.
In years past, manufacturers often worried about how a recall might be perceived by the public. Various marketing experts agree that the damage is much less today because consumers see such service actions as a normal process that, if anything, is designed to keep them safe. But the GM ignition switch fiasco shows there are exceptions.
"Recalls become a problem when the ethical issue becomes part of the story," said Anthony Johndrow, a managing partner with New York's Reputation Institute. And that's become the problem for GM, which, it appears, delayed the recall for a decade, opting against an early callback because it would have cost more than the maker deemed justifiable.
A company will get in trouble if it relies on "Machiavellian decision making," warned Johndrow, that "relies on a cost-benefit analysis against the cost of a human life."
Curiously, many motorists seem to make similar decisions when delivered a recall notice. According to NHTSA, an average of only 70 percent of vehicle owners typically take a car in for repairs, a figure that can fall to as little as 20 percent to 30 percent for minor issues.
Toyota aggressively pushed to boost the recall response rate for its 2009 and 2010 recalls, and GM is expected to do the same for the ignition switch issue, but despite the potential dangers, few expect it to get close to a 100 percent response rate.
—By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein