Yesterday’s big story was the revelation that General Motors is the target of probes by Congress and by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration over its handling of ignition switch defects in at least six of its popular automobiles. Failures in these switches may have resulted in as many as thirteen deaths and seemingly point to quality control failures at the automaker. GM has engaged two law firms to investigate its engineering missteps in dealing with the issue, but these attorneys will likely be more focused on the company’s non-reporting of the problem years ago.
On February 13, 2014, GM recalled 778,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s because their ignition switches could easily be bumped or shaken out the “Run” position and into the “Off” or “Accessory” position, causing power brakes, power steer and airbag failure. Although reports attribute thirteen deaths to this issue, GM acknowledges only six as being related to the switch failure. Regardless, the problem remains serious and somewhere along the way, the recall was expanded to include almost 1.4 million vehicles in North America. Models affected are the Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR, Pontiac’s G5 and Solstice, and Saturn’s Sky and Ion.
Sizable as the problem is and as tragic as the resulting deaths may be, they are not entirely unusual in the automotive world. After all, Toyota is in the midst of a 2.1 million vehicle recall of its own right now. And defects subject to recall have caused death and injury along the way. What’s unique is how this problem came to the attention of the people at GM and what was – or wasn’t – rightly communicated in order to further report and address it.
Ironically, it was one of company’s own engineers who accidentally knocked a car out of “Run” in 2004, and from that point forward, the story reads like a car-making comedy of errors.
According to a CNN Money story:
“The automaker immediately opened an internal investigation. Various fixes were contemplated but, ultimately, nothing was done.
‘After consideration of the lead time required, cost, and effectiveness of each of these solutions, the [investigation] was closed with no action,’ a GM report to NHTSA says.
But new complaints kept coming in about cars shutting off when the key or steering column was accidentally bumped. So there were more investigations.
In 2005, an engineer proposed that GM redesign the key, an idea that was approved but then dropped.
Instead, GM sent a bulletin to dealers that year asking them to inform customers about the problem. Customers were instructed to remove “unessential items from their key chain,” the carmaker said. The added weight of decorations and other keys increased the chances the key could turn accidentally.
Additionally, GM engineers devised a key ring insert that was supposed to keep attachments on the key ring from moving around and pulling on the key.
The problem wasn’t seen as terribly dangerous at the time, according the timeline GM filed with NHTSA. Even with the engine shut off, GM told the media in 2005, the steering and brakes still worked, although greater effort was needed. And the engine could be restarted after the car was shifted into “Neutral” or “Park.”
But the problems with the switches didn’t go away.
By 2005, there was at least one death when front airbags failed to deploy. GM’s legal department opened a file on the case, but nobody told the automaker’s own safety engineers.
The engineers only found out about the death during a 2007 meeting with regulators at NHTSA.
After that meeting, a GM engineer was assigned to study all Chevrolet Cobalt crashes in which front airbags didn’t deploy, looking for any common element in those crashes. Apparently, nothing was found.
In 2009, GM opened yet another investigation into the ignition problem. That study concluded that GM should redesign the key — the idea that had been accepted and dropped years before.
That change was implemented on 2010 cars, the last model year GM produced the Cobalt.
Meanwhile, airbags still weren’t deploying as they should in front end crashes of earlier models of the Cobalt and G5. As engineers pored over records, they realized that the ignition switch problem was only happening in cars made before 2007.
What most people at GM didn’t know was that Delphi, the company that supplied the switch, had redesigned the part in 2006 to make it harder to turn [and thereby fixing the problem].
The problem had been fixed. A GM engineer even signed off on the changes. Unfortunately, GM didn’t change the part number of the switch. As a result, manufacturing records didn’t indicate that the issue had been resolved.
So other GM engineers kept looking for solutions. The company even hired an outside engineering firm that tore apart and x-rayed ignition switches from different model years. Those experts finally determined that the part on the earlier cars was different.
Finally, in October 2013, GM talked with Delphi, which produced papers showing that the GM engineer had signed off on changes to the ignition switch seven years earlier.
With the answer finally in hand, GM started the process that resulted in this month’s recall of cars made between 2004 and 2007.”
Per another CNN Money article, much of this timeline was put together by a Georgia attorney, Lance Cooper, who represents the family of a woman killed in 2010 while driving a 2005 Cobalt. According to a transcript of the deposition he took of the engineer who knocked his car out of “Run”, the automaker knew of the problem as far back as 2004 and should have reported it to NHTSA within five days of that drive. And if not then, certainly after the 2005 death on which GM’s law department opened a file on the matter.
Now the heat is on and, according to a Forbes report, the company has hired two law firms – Jenner & Block and King & Spalding – to conduct an internal investigation of the entire matter. This as Congress and NHTSA are ramping up their own separate probes and the stakes are high. For failing to report the defect within five days, NHTSA could fine GM as much as $35 million. That would be the most ever for a U.S. automaker and, as an administrative penalty, would not preclude the government from seeking criminal charges.
So while it may be important to dig into the communications shortcomings set out in the timeline above, that will not be the focal point of the investigation. The Jenner and King people will have to make like Howard Baker and ask what the president – or other ranking person with reporting authority to NHTSA – knew and when they knew it. Because the cover-up is usually worse than the underlying wrong and this one could cost GM $35 million and its reputation.