It has not attracted much attention, but the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is holding a hearing on January 25th to look into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) handling of the investigation of a fire that occurred after a Chevy Volt was crash tested. GM's CEO Dan Ackerson will testify.
You can see the Committee's Chairman, Congressman Darrell Issa discuss the hearing during this interview on Fox Business by clicking here.
The NHTSA handling of the investigation does raise an important question, although I suspect it is not a question that will be raised during the hearing. The question is simply: When should the public be notified after NHTSA or the car companies discover a potential safety issue with a vehicle?
This is not an easy question to answer. Shouldn't the defect be verified as real before causing public concern? (For example, it is conceivable that a freak lightening strike caused the Volt fire.) What about identifying the cause? And what about a fix?
The point is this: these steps all take time. Today the media and public jump on any hints of delay — even if the delay was for a good reason — as signs of a cover-up.
What is the right balance between the need for transparency and the need for accuracy and completeness?
A few years back when unintended acceleration was the topic of the day, some of the criticism leveled at Toyota was about delays in notification. Now with the Volt, there is an implication of government dithering to hide issues with favored technologies.
In the case of Toyota, a primary reason for the tardiness of notification was the difficulty in replicating the fault. Without being able determine the root cause and then something to fix it, Toyota executives hesitated to make a public statement. In the case of the Volt, I doubt there is any evidence to be found that the Obama administration interfered with NHTSA's investigation. It is more plausible that the reason for the delay was so the problem could be replicated and a cause identified.
While I don't expect any revelations, there is some good that can come from this hearing. The tension between the public's/media's demand for immediate notification (transparency) and the time required for accurate and complete advisories isn't going away. NHTSA can use the hearing as a venue to start to set reasonable expectations about how we can achieve a balance of both.