Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee tasked with investigating the timeline of the General Motors ignition switch recall released more than 600 pages of documents related to the issue. Jalopnik's review of these documents reveal deeply entrenched problems at the automaker.
The documents, which consist of of emails, memos, and diagrams spread over a decade, show engineers dismissive of safety issues who were combative with regulators and their own co-workers, but quietly fixed the issue under the rest of the company's noses. Some of these correspondences are incomplete, so it's possible there are responses that entirely vindicate GM's actions, but if such correspondences do exist it's unclear why they wouldn't include them.
Further, it provides a direct discrepancy between what a now-suspended GM engineer testified in court and what he actually signed off on during his duties.
GM is recalling 1.4 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions, Pontiac G5s and other cars over a faulty ignition switch that, with minimal effort, can switch off mid-drive, which also turns off the airbag. Thirteen deaths and an unknown number of injuries have been linked to the problem, which was known about as far back as 2001 but not recalled until earlier this year.
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New CEO Mary Barra has already been hauled before Congress, lawsuits are mounting, two engineers have been suspended without pay, and the automaker has shaken up its senior staff in the aftermath of the recall. Likely, more headaches are coming for GM, as are more disclosures as the House committee releases more documents to the public.
Here's what we learned from our scouring of the first edition of the GM documents:
The suspended chief Cobalt engineer was the one who switched the car off with his knee
Remember how it came out a few months ago that a top GM engineer first encountered the ignition switch problem with the Cobalt way back in 2004? It turns out that engineer was none other than Gary Altman, the program engineering manager for the Cobalt in 2004 and 2005, and one of two engineers currently suspended with pay as part of the investigation.
According to these documents, Altman inadvertently turned off the car after bumping it with his knee. However, he later testified in the lawsuit filed by the family of Cobalt victim Brooke Melton that he did not feel the car was unsafe, and was the one who rejected a fix for the ignition switch because it was too expensive and would take too long.
It makes you wonder what it would take for Altman to consider a car unsafe then.
The other suspended GM engineer's actions don't match what he said in court
Testifying in the Melton lawsuit, the other suspended engineer, Ray DeGiorgio, testified that he did not know who signed off on the change to the ignition switch made to the Cobalt after the 2008 model year that fixed its shutdown issues. He suggests in court that it may have been made on the supplier, i.e. Delphi, side of things.
DeGiorgio must have a short memory, or he wasn't being entirely honest when testifying under oath, because he himself signed off on the part change in a memo to the supplier in 2006. "He provides the approval with GM3360 to implement both changes," the memo says.
How do you explain that one?
Fixing the Cobalt did not represent "an acceptable business case"
We've known about this for a while, but here it is in writing. The problem for GM is that the inevitable lawsuits and fines that will follow this action (or lack of action, rather) will likely prove to be even worse for their bottom line.
GM engineers weighed several solutions to the problem
These solutions included changing the shape of the slot in the Cobalt's key from an arc to a circular hole in order to reduce the load on said key; adding a detent between the ignition switch lock cover and cam shaft; and changing from a "low mount" to a "high mount" lock module. Instead, the matter was closed for lack of a business case.
The feds knew something was up by 2007 too
This email comes from an official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Defects Assessment Division, or DAD. By 2007 they clearly disagreed with GM's assertions that there was no pattern of airbag non-deployments with the Cobalt and its kin, and said there were certain incidents where death or injury could have been avoided had the airbag deployed properly.
Warranty claims over airbag issues were significantly higher for the Cobalt
Check out this graph from NHTSA's DAD group. It shows that Cobalts around 2005 had a much higher warranty claim rate for airbag issues than its GM brethren like the Cadillac CTS and Saab 9-5, as well as its competitors like the Ford Focus and Honda Civic.
A GM investigator tried to figure out why airbag issues dropped off after 2008
As indicated in these documents and as Automotive News reported, GM engineer Brian Stouffer spent two years in 2011 and 2012 trying to sort out the problem behind the Cobalt ignition switches only to receive significant pushback, inaccurate data and a lack of cooperation from his co-workers.
Stouffer tried to figure out why airbag issues dropped off after the 2008 model year even though he could find no documented changes to the cars. We now know this is because GM engineers quietly changed the faulty part in 2006 but did not change its part number.
It would have cost just $10 per part to replace the ignition switches on 2005-2007 Cobalts
Just $10 per part for those years of Cobalts alone, which was about 1.5 million units, according to this email from other suspended engineer Raymond DeGiorigio to Stouffer. I have a feeling GM will be spending a lot more money than that in the long run.
Well, how much torque do you want?
Stouffer asked DeGiorigio what it would take to create a new ignition switch, but DeGiorgio responded by saying he needed to know what the torque requirements for such a switch would be.
This, after we learned supplier Delphi told GM way back in 2002 that the faulty switch didn't meet their own requirements for torque. How about abiding by your own standards, for starters?
This is a matter that later comes up when DeGiorgio is testifying in the Melton lawsuit.
Feds to GM: We don't get this kind of bullshit from the other car companies
Here's an email from NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation chief Frank Borris to GM Director of Product Investigations in 2013. Even though the "new GM" says it does things differently from "old GM," Borris expresses frustrations with the automaker his agency does not face with other companies.
"The general perception is that GM is slow to communicate, slow to act, and at times, requires additional effort of ODI that we do not feel is necessary with some of your peers." Ouch.
And GM was totally caught off guard by that
"What did we do?" is the response here, although to his credit, this GM official recognizes NHTSA's comments as something that needs to be addressed.
The rate of airbag non-deployments was much higher in the 2005 and 2006 Cobalt before the part was changed
Another graph, which shows what a difference the part made in whether an airbag deployed properly in a crash:
People were badly hurt in these crashes
While GM so far has linked 13 deaths to the ignition switch issue, and many of those deaths involved unsafe driving practices, the automaker has not released the number of injury crashes related to the defect. These graphs shine some light on that matter.
As of Oct. 13, there were five deaths and 18 injuries that ranged from mild to severe in the Cobalt and Pontiac G5/Pursuit alone. These numbers do not include the other cars affected by the recall such as the Saturn Ion. At least one person was rendered quadriplegic in a crash. We can only assume that, with more up-to-date data that includes all recalled vehicles, these injury numbers will rise.
It would have cost $81 million to replace the ignition switches on most of the recalled cars
If this chart is accurate, then replacing the faulty ignition switches on the cars would have cost — or will cost — about $81 million. These numbers do not include the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice roadsters.
The current recall costs have soared to $1.3 billion, which is quite a bit more than that, but there's no information in these documents about why that discrepancy exists.
The faulty ignition switch was designed to feel less "cheap" than older GM cars
Here's DeGiorgio, testifying in the Brooke Melton lawsuit:
Have you read through the first batch of GM documents? Did anything else stand out to you? If so, drop them in the comments.
Additional reporting by Mike Ballaban