Why GM Has To Convince The World They're Incompetent

The ignition recall has reached full absurdity — it's gotten so bad for GM they've had to advertise their own incompetence as the better, more reasonable conclusion to draw.

I hate recalls. When it comes to car safety, I put my faith in crash test regulations, in drunk driver awareness campaigns, in quality road design efforts. As far as I can tell, recalls are just high-profile patches on existing problems.

So I didn't pay much attention to the recall as news first broke, but the deeper I look into the ignition switch problem, the more I realize how fucked up things have gotten for GM. Put simply, they have been faced with two options: admit that they covered up an ignition switch change knowing that the part was shutting off cars while they were on the road, or they simply had no clue what they were doing, victims of mass corporate incompetence.

Basically, it's in GM's interest at this point to convince the public that they're all complete morons. This is important to keep in mind as GM continues to make statements to the public. And it's also, you know, completely ridiculous.

Here's a rudimentary timeline, pulled mostly from information available since late February. Remember that it's hard to call this timeline definitive. There's a lot that we the public don't know about what was going on within GM, and NHTSA is still sorting through the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents GM dumped on the agency a few days ago.


2001: An official GM document records an ignition switch cutting power to a car, in this case a pre-production Saturn Ion, the Wall Street Journal reports.

2002: Saturn Ion production starts.

2003: A GM service technician observes a Saturn Ion stalling while driving and figures out that the ignition switch was worn down by a heavy key chain. The service technician replaces the ignition switch and the file is closed.

2004: A GM engineer is driving a Cobalt and experiences the switch cutting off the car's power. This includes the engine, power steering, power brakes, ABS, and airbags. Other engineers replicate the cutoff. In 2014, GM claimed that this 2004 incident was the first instance of this problem being recorded.

2005: Cobalts go on sale, GM gets more complaints about the cars losing power, GM issues a service bulletin on how to fix the problem with a key insert. Only 474 people get the insert. One GM engineer analyzes the cost of fixing the switch altogether. The number rings up to a mere 57 cents. The engineer's report concludes this fix does not represent "an acceptable business case."

2006: A GM design engineer approves a change to the ignition switch. The changes are small, including a new detent plunger and a tougher spring. The new ignition switch does not get a new part number. The head of the Cobalt program also starts a program that puts pressure on engineers to reduce the number of parts changes within the design process. That executive's husband brags about slashing GM's engineering budget to the tune of a $1 billion savings.

2007: NHTSA alerts GM of the first ignition switch-related fatality.

2008: Zilch, according to this NHTSA document.

2009: The birth of 'New GM,' GM starts officially looking into weighty key chains turning off cars. GM then meets with the supplier that makes the switch and discusses the problem as it directly relates to fatal crashes.

2010: GM stops making the Cobalt. Brooke Melton dies at the wheel of her 2005 Cobalt. The switch shuts off the car's power and in the crash, the airbag does not deploy. This will become the case that brings the ignition switch mess to light.

2011: GM's legal department meets with their recall teams to look into airbags not deploying in Cobalts and Pontiac G5s during crashes. GM assesses that the switching-off ignitions could be the cause.

2012: A GM engineer assigned to the case of the no-airbag crashes figures out that a number of ignition switches on Cobalts, G5s, and other cars dating back to 2003 turn off too easily. That is, that the switches were built below GM's standards.

2013: After extensive testing, GM's team assigned to the no-airbag-deployment cars problem figures out that there's a significant number of Cobalts from before 2007 have substandard ignition switches. This GM team then discovers, possibly for the first time, that a different engineering team approved a change to the ignition switch back in 2006 without changing the parts number. GM settles the Brooke Melton case.

2014: Mary Barra becomes GM's CEO, only two weeks before she claims she first hears about the ignition switch problem. News of the Melton case comes to light. GM starts recalling millions of cars that could have faulty switches, fully a decade after the problem is first recognized.


Unsurprisingly, GM has been pitching the public that the lack of communication within the company wasn't a cover up but rather business as usual within a horribly dysfunctional company.

Listen to CEO Barra's testimony as she's grilled by Barbara Boxer and you'll get what I mean.

[It starts at about 29 minutes in this video]

Boxer reads through Barra's resume and points out how Barra was the Executive Director of Competitive Operations Engineering at the time that the company changed the defective ignition switch for a good one and didn't change the parts number. And still Barra claimed she knew nothing about it. In short, she pleaded that she was really shitty at her job.

Well, that's not exactly right. She pleaded that her company was so compartmentalized, so opaque, so bureaucratic, so institutionally confused that important information about an engineered part that was turning cars and airbags off before crashes did not make it to the engineering boss.

NHTSA has now fined GM for doing pretty much the same thing. NHTSA fined GM for "failure to respond fully or truthfully" to its investigation of the ignition switch switch. NHTSA states that GM is dodging "basic questions concerning information that is surely readily available to GM at this time." What NHTSA is saying is that GM is acting like it has no clue what is going on within its company (the same stance that Barra repeatedly took in front of congress) and NHTSA believes that cannot be the case. That's why NHTSA is currently fining GM.

NHTSA lays the final blow with this line.

"Moreover, it is deeply troubling that GM is unwilling or unable to tell NHTSA whether the design of the switch changed at any other time."

This is the key point here. Congress didn't just accuse GM of a possible criminal cover up that they knew their cars were killing people. One senator said GM "has a real exposure to criminal liability," as the New York Times reports. Another congressman likened GM to a restaurant owner that continued to serve food it knew was poisoned without changing the recipe.

In this kind of environment, GM's best case scenario is to convince the public that they changed the ignition switch but didn't change the parts number not as part of some kind of cover up, but rather as what was a normal act in business. That it genuinely took GM ten years to figure out what the hell was going on with the Cobalt shutting off.

GM's best shot is to say that it was incompetence that no engineers informed their higher-ups that one part — just a little spring in an ignition switch — was changed because it was involved in a number of fatal crashes. Barra really wants people to believe that she, an executive in engineering and then a CEO only learned abut this issue this year.

The alternative is that there's been a cover up. That people have been lying. That important people at the company learned early about the ignition switch fault and stalled while the company was begging for a bailout, struggling though a bankruptcy, and then working under government oversight. That there might be something sneaky about GM engineers taking paid leave in the midst of an investigation. That there might be something malicious about GM representatives trying to gain access to a critical crashed car's black box without lawyers present, as the New York Times also reports.

So it's up to GM to convince the public that they weren't actively trying to cover up knowing about their ignition switches shutting off cars and airbags, and their plan so far has been to convince the public that they're simply so incompetent that their cover up was inadvertent and caused by mass corporate incompetence. Amazingly, it looks like the best plan they have.

Photo Credit: Mad Magazine, Getty Images