General Motors is coming under increasing pressure to tell the millions of owners impacted by an ignition switch recall to park those vehicles until it can make the necessary repairs— a request that will be brought before a federal judge on Friday.
But such a move—which is being backed by plaintiffs' attorneys, as well as several members of the Senate—could create a nightmare for the embattled automaker, which would need to scramble to come up with just under 2.6 million loaner vehicles so owners wouldn't be left without transportation.
GM is so far resisting such a move. While it has already offered to provide loaners for owners who didn't want to drive their recalled cars, CEO Mary Barra told a Senate subcommittee earlier this week that the vehicles are safe as long as there is nothing hanging from the ignition key.
"[If] there was any risk, I would ground these vehicles across the country," Barra said. The first female CEO of a major global automaker, Barra was hammered on Capitol Hill by critics who suggested the automaker was engaging in a cover-up of the ignition switch problem, which now covers nearly 2.6 million vehicles.
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Some of the loudest voices in the request to ground all recalled GM vehicles are those of plaintiffs' attorneys, who are suing GM in connection with ignition switch crashes, or who are putting together possible class action lawsuits.
That includes Texas personal injury attorney Robert Hilliard, who will ask a federal judge on Friday to order GM to tell owners the vehicles are unsafe to drive.
"Ground every recalled vehicle and do to it now," Hilliard demanded in a letter sent to Barra on Thursday. The attorney cited a claim by Laura Valle, the owner of a 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, who claimed to have had her car stall out last month even though she had removed all but the ignition key from her key ring.
Hilliard's request will go before U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in the federal court of Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday afternoon.
To date, GM has provided about 13,000 loaner vehicles, but going much beyond that could be a challenge. Several of the automaker's dealers have said they've already had trouble coming up with temporary replacements from local rental car firms.
GM plans to begin replacing the defective ignition switches next week, but the process is expected to take months to complete.
At the heart of the issue is an ignition switch that can inadvertently switch off under certain conditions—most commonly if a motorist has a lot of weight on the key ring. In such an instance, the car's engine can stall, causing its power brakes and steering, as well as the airbag system, to be disabled.
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GM has been scrambling to do damage control, but it hasn't been easy—especially for Barra. Along with the grillings she faced in the Senate and House this week, GM is also said to be facing a separate investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Meanwhile, there are calls for the automaker to set up a victims' compensation fund.
At least 13 deaths and 32 crashes have been linked to the problem in the U.S. and Canada.