“Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took so long for a safety defect to be announced,” General Motors CEO Mary Barra said during her congressional testimony on Monday.
As Barra mentioned, the saga began over a decade ago, long before her ascension to the post of chief executive officer. The car model most closely associated with the ignition-switch defect is the Chevy Cobalt, but the problem was first detected in 2001, when the Saturn Ion underwent pre-launch testing. During yesterday’s congressional hearings, it was mentioned that the part in question, a product of Delphi Automotive, only cost 57 cents. Delphi officials claim GM approved the ignition switch even though it never met their standards.
The first minor incidents related to the ignition-switch defect were reported in 2003. The problem occurred when drivers bumped the fragile ignition switch – early engineer reports cited short drivers with large keychains as particularly likely to accidentally nudge the switch with their knees. Unfortunately, the result involved the car dropping into “accessory” mode – the setting used when you want to play your radio in a parked car, without turning over the engine. Among the systems disabled in accessory mode are the engine, power steering, power brakes, and airbags.
That means big trouble when the car drops into accessory mode while moving, but there apparently weren’t any serious efforts to address the issue at General Motors until 2005. A proposal from engineers to fix the problem was rejected as too expensive, and too difficult to perform in a product recall without causing other problems. “Engineers considered increasing or changing the ignition switch ‘torque effort,’ but were advised by the ignition switch engineer that it is ‘close to impossible to modify the present ignition switch’ as the switch is ‘very fragile and doing any further changes will lead to mechanical and/or electrical problems,'” according to House Energy and Commerce Committee documents.
According to testimony from a GM engineer, the company told itself that drivers would be able to control their vehicles and coast off the road after the ignition switch defect caused a stall. Tragically, this proved to be far from the case. At least 133 complaints were filed by consumers, although for reasons as yet unclear, they didn’t accumulate in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s central database or raise any red flags with regulators. The NHTSA has pointed fingers of blame at GM for failing to disclose the problem, but it’s more than a little curious that the massive federal regulatory apparatus didn’t notice all those reports about the ignition system dying on similar models of car from the same automaker.
What got everyone’s attention was the first fatality from the defect in 2005, involving a 16-year-old Maryland girl named Amber Marie Rose, who lost control of her suddenly inert car and hit a tree. The deactivated airbags failed to deploy; according to the girl’s mother, paramedics on the scene said they would have saved her life, if they had functioned. “It shouldn’t come to a fatality, especially when it’s coming from a car that has a defective part,” said her mother, who believes the actual number of fatalities from the safety defect to be over twice as high as the 13 incidents General Motors has formally acknowledged. “GM knew about this defect, they knew about it in 2001, they OK’d it going forward. They should have been required to pass that information to the NHTSA from day one.” But they weren’t, in part because upper management was not formally notified of the issue, which would have obligated them to inform the feds.
In April of 2006, GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio signed off on a fix for the faulty ignition switches, although the redesign failed to meet testing standards, leaving the affected vehicles with an ignition system that still didn’t meet minimum specifications. The document signed by DeGiorgio is significant because it’s strong evidence that GM knew it had a serious problem on its hands, long before it notified either consumers or the government… and because DeGiorgio would later deny that he signed off on the redesign during sworn testimony in a lawsuit over another Chevy Cobalt fatality. Engineers hired by the victim’s family noticed that the ignition switch changed to a longer, sturdier design during the 2006 model year, but the new parts did not receive a new part number, making the change difficult to notice.
“Changing the fit, form, or function without making a part number change is a cardinal sin,” a former GM engineer told Automotive News. “It would have been an extraordinary violation of internal processes.” Other engineers pointed out that several departments within the company must have been aware of the change, including manufacturing and purchasing, and that normally the tracking of redesigned parts is so precise that the company records which individual vehicle is the first to receive it.
The NHTSA didn’t get involved until 2007… at which time they concluded no formal investigation was warranted. It was the failure of airbags to deploy that caught the government’s attention. General Motors, which at this point had known about the ignition problem for six years – and mentioned it in service bulletins issued several months after Amber Marie Rose’s death in 2005 – claimed it saw “no specific problem pattern,” and that was evidently good enough to forestall the probe originally recommended by the Office of Defects Investigation.
The taxpayer bailout of General Motors began in December of 2008, with the support of both President George Bush and President-elect Barack Obama. GM declared bankruptcy in June of 2009, leading to the government’s outright purchase of the company.
The NHTSA grew interested in the ignition switch defect in 2010, once again because of airbag malfunctions in the Chevy Cobalt. Once again, the agency decided not to investigate further, a decision that has prompted many suspicions of a cover-up to protect “Government Motors” and the Obama Administration. By this point, evidence of the problem had accumulated to the point where critics feel tougher questions should have been asked of GM – which, as we now know, had been aware of the problem for years. It seems as if the decision to waive further investigation was justified by comparing air bag failure rates to similar auto models, which completely missed the actual problem with the ignition switch. One of the procedural changes suggested recently would be giving the NHTSA access to the warranty databases maintained by automakers, which could more clearly present evidence of recurring problems.
The end of the saga has also fueled dark speculation about the government’s special treatment of General Motors. The last of the government’s stake in GM was sold off at the end of 2013… opening the floodgates for millions of vehicle recalls. GM finally gave the NHTSA a formal notification of the safety defect in February of 2014.
Although new CEO Mary Barra has been given credit for finally notifying drivers and regulators of the problem, her testimony before Congress on Tuesday did not earn much applause. She has been accused of stonewalling by refusing to answer some questions until an internal company investigation is completed. When she was asked why GM would have ever used parts that didn’t meet its minimum specifications, she said substandard parts aren’t necessarily defective… a response Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) angrily dismissed as “gobbledygook.” Much of her testimony boiled down to saying she just can’t figure out why the company didn’t deal with the problem sooner, but GM is a new company now, so things will be better. In other words, she provided more assurances and remorse than answers.
Still to be determined: whether the Treasury Department was aware of these issues when they arranged the government buyout… and if not, why?