GM Engineers: Just Coast Your Cobalt Off The Road If It Shuts Down

Rather than engineer the car correctly in the first place, or issue a recall at several points when the problem was known, General Motors engineers had this solution for Chevrolet Cobalt shutdowns: Just coast it safely off the road! Brilliant.

New documents featuring testimony from a 2013 lawsuit unearthed by the Wall Street Journal indicate GM employees made a "business decision" (think Fight Club, basically) not to fix the known problem with the ignition switch in the Cobalt and other cars.

That switch can be knocked out of the "on" position relatively easily, which also disables the airbags on the 1.4 million recalled vehicles.

"That is what happened, yes," Gary Altman, program engineering manager for the 2005 Cobalt, said when asked in a June 2013 deposition whether GM made "a business decision not to fix this problem" before the Cobalt was launched in 2004.

Altman insisted in his deposition that the flaw didn't put drivers at risk even when the airbags did not deploy, but with GM themselves admitting 12 deaths tied to that issue, it's probably fair to say that's not the case.

But the WSJ reports engineers believed the cars "could be safely coasted off the road after a stall," according to the court documents.

[Altman] was responding to questions by an attorney representing the family of Brooke Melton, a Georgia woman killed in a crash of her Cobalt that suffered ignition failure while driving at about 55 miles an hour.

"We've sold vehicles for many, many years without power assist and the car was maneuverable and controllable," he said. "We've been through that several times, in fact, during this investigation looking at the car to make sure it still could be controlled."

[Ignition switch engineer Ray] DeGiorgio also testified that he bought a 2007 Cobalt for his son without "any hesitation that this issue potentially existed." He said that in advance of his April 2013 deposition, he tested the car, turning off the ignition while driving near his home. "As long as the vehicle can still be controlled…the vehicle is still safe," he said.

Sure, GM and other automakers sold cars without power assist for a long time. But I'd wager that the majority of the car-buying public in the mid-2000s when the Cobalt et al. went on sale — including younger people, one of its biggest sales demographics — didn't know how to control a car that loses power suddenly or can effectively operate a car without assisted steering. People's driving habits change with technology.

All that aside, I think it's flawed logic for GM to think that a car can simply be coasted off the road in every circumstance. What if there's no edge of the road to coast onto, or you drift into traffic?

As lawsuits continue to mount and the Justice Department's criminal investigation looms, I'm sure GM is wishing it had just done the right thing in the first place and fixed the problem 10 years ago.