• Apr 17, 2014

Documents do not shed light on what motivated the decision to eschew use of the first switch.

General Motors made a fateful choice in the fall of 2001.

The company considered two options for ignition switches to be installed on the 2003 Saturn Ion. One drawing submitted that September contained an ignition switch that included a longer detent spring and plunger with greater torque.

In October, one month later, the company considered another engineering drawing that showed a shorter detent spring and plunger, which made it easier for the switch to move between the "run" and "accessory" positions.

Documents do not shed light on what motivated the decision to eschew use of the first switch, but GM's decision to go with the shorter switch has proven to have far-reaching consequences. The shorter switches have been linked to at least 32 car accidents resulting in at least 13 deaths.

Drawings of the two different switches were among the 200,000 pages of documents GM submitted to federal investigators who want to know why the company waited until this February to recall more than 2.5 million cars afflicted with the defective switches when it had knowledge of its flaws for more than a decade. The springs in the shorter switches were 9.6 millimeters; the springs in the longer ones were 12.3 millimeters, according to the documents. The difference between life and death was 2.7 millimeters.

On Wednesday, the Center for Auto Safety, which first noted the differences between the drawings, sent a letter to General Motors CEO Mary Barra, asking if she had been briefed about the differences in the parts – and the documents that illustrate them – in advance of Congressional hearings held earlier this month. Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of CAS, and Joan Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, called on Barra to release all documents that shed light on the decision to select the switch utilizing the shorter detent spring and plunger.
Clarence Ditlow of Center for Automotive Safety holds up GM ignition switch

Consumers began complaining about the flaw and airing safety concerns almost immediately.

The documents "paint a tragic picture of the cost culture and cover up at General Motors," the pair wrote. "The conclusion we draw from examining the two different designs of the ignition switches under consideration in 2001 is that General Motors picked a smaller and cheaper ignition switch that cost consumers their lives and saved General Motors money."

In response, Greg A. Martin, spokesperson for General Motors, told Autoblog Wednesday that all of the questions would be addressed in an internal investigation being conducted by former US Attorney Anton Valukas. Martin said Valukas' investigation is expected to be completed within the next 45 to 60 days.

The defective ignition switches inadvertently could move from the "run" to "accessory" positions, and consequently turn off the engine and electrical systems, including the airbags and power steering. After their inclusion on the '03 Saturn Ion, GM also used them on certain models of the Chevrolet Cobalt, Saturn Sky, Pontiac G5 and Pontiac Solstice.

Consumers began complaining about the flaw and airing safety concerns almost immediately. Documents show that General Motors subsequently changed the part on April 21, 2006. The company didn't have to look far for a solution – it started using the switches with longer detent springs and plungers that it originally rejected five years earlier.

It was a "silent remedy," the Center for Auto Safety charges.

It was a "silent remedy," the Center for Auto Safety charges, one that enabled General Motors to hide the problem from federal safety regulators who might have compelled a recall of vehicles affected by the problem. Federal laws mandate that automakers report safety-related defects to NHTSA within five days of learning about them.

When GM made the switch to the longer switches, documents show that the company kept the same part number, violating a basic engineering tenet, a failure that Barra has acknowledged was inappropriate and substandard.

As scrutiny of the ignition switch mounted in the wake of a lawsuit settled last September, an engineer from Delphi, the supplier of the flawed switch, emailed his GM counterparts on October 29, 2013 trying to ascertain when the company had switched to the switch with the longer springs and plunger.

He referenced the original part numbers from the two options that existed in 2001, noting that they were different, and that matched the description of the changes made in 2006.

"Given these startling revelations that a safer switch existed in 2001 before the Saturn and Cobalt were put into production," Ditlow and Claybrook wrote, "we call on you to make the full 'unvarnished' internal investigation of Anton Valukas public as he must surely probe these areas."


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  • 35 Comments
      KaptnKauto
      • 8 Months Ago
      DOJ needs to force the executives and engineers and their families to drive the cars with the defective ignition switch as their daily car. With a heavy key chain and let fait decide.
      carguy1701
      • 8 Months Ago
      Oy vey, GM.
      Avinash Machado
      • 8 Months Ago
      The dangers of penny pinching.
      bootsnchaps60
      • 8 Months Ago
      There seems to be no point in plodding through these hearings until a determination is made on who is potentially liable-old GM or new GM. If the bankruptcy ended liability for new GM of anything that happened under old GM then that leaves new GM with a significant PR problem but not liability. Seems like the bankruptcy court where the Chapter 11etty quickly.
        bootsnchaps60
        • 8 Months Ago
        @bootsnchaps60
        Where the Chapter 11 was filed could resolve that pretty quickly.
      Jerry
      • 8 Months Ago
      With this info, GM is going to have a hard time pinning this on Delphi.
      Feurig
      • 8 Months Ago
      This is gonna drag on and on, won't it? So a small decision in 2001 was to reject a different ignition switch. This isn't some evidence of a scandal. Thousands of decisions are made everyday in companies like this.
        Eggmania
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Feurig
        i wouldn't call any decision that puts peoples lives in danger 'small'. that is the mindset that got GM into this mess. Barra reinforced it when she arrogantly said 'these are real people, with real jobs' referencing the negligent people responsible. are the people who died not real? to her of course not, they are statistics, a demographic, a customer base.
      behinddawindow
      • 8 Months Ago
      Dear Prosecutors, Why not bring in Mr. Rick Wagnor? He WAS the CEO during those times and got a nice golden parachute. I'm amazed how people quickly forget.
        Jerry
        • 8 Months Ago
        @behinddawindow
        The decision to use the defective switch was made at a program level, not a corporate level. At least originally when the development work was being done in 2001. I think they nailed the two people who made this call. They are suspended. As to the "running change" without a part number change, it seems like someone up top had to have been aware of the key switch issues in the field. Cannot pin it all on Wagoner, although he probably did catch wind of it at some point.
          funguy6713
          • 8 Months Ago
          @Jerry
          Sure, just like the banks, you let the guy lowest on the totem pole fall on his sword, while Managers/managing Directors/VP's/Divisional CEO's who are responsible for the corrupt culture, walk away unscathed...yeah only bosses when they have to claim their fat bonuses and pay raises but claim ignorance when things go South...hey, it's good to be the boss...
        funguy6713
        • 8 Months Ago
        @behinddawindow
        True, but Barra is more closely tied to this than she has led on. The division that Ok'ed the defective car part, reported directed to Barra. In fact there are email submitted to the Federal Gov't that shows Barra was cc'ed on matters related to the ignition switch...
          ozric427
          • 8 Months Ago
          @funguy6713
          You do not have your facts straight. Mary was not in charge of the switch at the time. The e-Mail you reference was for an issue with the power steering on some Saturn vehicles and Cobalt vehicles in 2011, not related to the switch at all
        waetherman
        • 8 Months Ago
        @behinddawindow
        That may very we'll prove to be important, but I think it's legitimate to put the focus on the current CEO, who is responsible for presenting the company position, making changes at the company going forward, and complying (or not, as the case may be) with requests from congress and NHTSA. Get Wagoer up there and all he'll say is "I'm don't recall, I'd have to refer to documents which I no longer have access to."
      Brodz
      • 8 Months Ago
      Typical GM. Probably saved them 30c a vehicle or something ridiculous. But isn't it the suppliers duty to ensure their part is safe, and will not fault in such a catastrophic way? Or even to ensure that the part is not inherently flawed? I'm leaning towards blaming the supplier.
        Jerry
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Brodz
        How is the supplier to blame? Delphi gave them two options and it was GM who took the weaker design, put it in production, made a design change without proper documentation after learning of field issues, etc. GM owns this 100%.
        Bexly
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Brodz
        Supplier's fault it was a bad part, GM's fault for not: 1: Fixing it when they found out it was broken 2: telling anyone it was broken 3: using a better part after it was discovered
      tiger
      • 8 Months Ago
      @Pete Bigelow: Why not provide all the facts rather than your uneducated and uninformed view? "The difference between life and death was 2.7 millimeters." They were trying to avoid a harder turning of the key - but it bit them in the end. Trying to make things easier for people, especially those with weak hands or handicaps... "The shorter switches have been linked to at least 32 car accidents resulting in at least 13 deaths." If 99% of these people were not under the influence, they may still be alive. I'm not discounting the fact that this should have been handled much, much earlier but you cannot put all the blame on GM. How about the 16 year old girl going twice the posted speed limit while drunk? Her parents should be to blame for that one. There are other examples.
        zepeda1
        • 8 Months Ago
        @tiger
        where are your facts of 99% of these people were under the influence? Seems Pete Bigelow isn't the only one who is uneducated and uninformed.
          tiger
          • 8 Months Ago
          @zepeda1
          My bad, 12 out of the 13 has been reported to be DUI by more than one source. I guess that's 92%. Shame on me for exaggerating. But you have to admit, even the headline is misleading in this article. GM did not Reject a "Better" Ignition Switch in 1991. They rejected a design that was HARDEDR to TURN from the lock position. Who knew in 1991 that this decision would have caused inadvertant movement of the ignition? What GM failed to do once it was determined that this movement was causing a no-airbag deployment during accidents is the real issue. Bottom line, Bigelow needs to stop spinning up a headline, and provide factual journalism.
      Arizonarelax
      • 8 Months Ago
      Deeper and deeper in the decision making process it goes. Same part number to deceive. "Like a rock" remember that? Yea, Pffftttt ! The two many keys on the key ring explanation has quickly faded into - we lied, covered it up and so what if consumers complained almost immediately. Again, I feel for those at GM that gave a crap about their work and taking care of their families. Where are the unions now standing up for these people against management past and present? Still pulling for Barra but her current actions seem too familiar from the same old play book. America is growing tired of the "I am sorry" stance and lies. We hear it everyday from Washington and now corporations. Puke-o-rama!!!
      v6sonoma
      • 8 Months Ago
      I understand people are upset because they have lost loved ones, but what gets me is all that happens when the car switches off is the same as what happens when you run out of gas. You can still steer and you can still brake, just not as well. That does nothing for the people who lost someone but I think it shows why other countries have a better system for training young drivers. The more advanced driving techniques they have people perform that actually induce situations where you loose control give them at least some experience to be able to deal with these situations when they happen.
        ozric427
        • 8 Months Ago
        @v6sonoma
        Not true in this case, if the ignition turns to off position, this could lock up steering, plus with power off, no air bags. Say you get in an accident, just the jostle of the car will cause the ignition to turn off and air bags do not deploy. It is not the same as running out of gas. At least when you run out of gas you still have electrical power.
      2011 Sportsman
      • 8 Months Ago
      Hurry up and crucify GM, I've had enough of their Bullshit... Get it over with
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