DETROIT — Inside General Motors, they called it "the switch from hell."
The ignition switch on the steering column of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small cars was so poorly designed that it easily slipped out of the run position, causing engines to stall. Engineers knew it; as early as 2004, a Cobalt stalled on a GM test track when the driver's knee grazed the key fob. By GM's admission, the defective switches caused over 50 crashes and at least 13 deaths.
Yet inside the auto giant, no one saw it as a safety problem. For 11 years.
A 315-page report by an outside attorney found that the severity of the switch problem was downplayed from the start. Even as dozens of drivers were losing control of their vehicles in terrifying crashes, GM engineers, safety investigators and lawyers considered the switches a "customer satisfaction" problem, incorrectly believing that people could still steer the cars even though the power steering went out when the engines stalled. In safety meetings, people gave what was known in the company as the "GM nod," agreeing on a plan of action but doing nothing.
"The decision not to categorize the problem as a safety issue directly impacted the level of urgency with which the problem was addressed and the effort to resolve it," wrote Anton Valukas, the former federal prosecutor hired by GM to produce the report.
Some experts applauded the transparency in the GM report, but not everyone is buying its narrative, including family members of people killed and some lawyers suing the company.
Laura Christian, whose daughter Amber Marie Rose was killed in a Maryland Cobalt crash, still questions whether GM leaders knew about the problem — even though Valukas found that top executives, including CEO Mary Barra, didn't know about the switch problem until last December. Christian said the internal investigation is a start, but she hopes the Justice Department goes deeper and holds some employees criminally liable.
"Negligence is a criminal charge," she said.
The Valukas report makes no mention of negligence. But it says plenty about incompetence throughout GM.
THE NEW SWITCH
In the late 1990s, GM patented a new ignition switch designed to be cheaper, less prone to failure and less apt to catch fire than previous switches. But in prototype vehicles, the switch worked poorly. Veteran switch engineer Ray DeGiorgio had to redesign its electrical system.
The switch had mechanical problems, too. It didn't meet GM's specifications for the force required to rotate it. But increasing the force would have required more changes. So in 2002, DeGiorgio — who made several critical decisions in this case — approved the switch anyway. He signed an email to the switch supplier, "Ray (tired of the switch from hell) DeGiorgio."
Almost immediately, GM started getting complaints of unexpected stalling from drivers of the Saturn Ion, the first car equipped with the switch. The complaints continued when the switch was used for the Cobalt, which went on sale in 2004. Yet it wasn't seen as a safety issue. Even if the engine stalled and the power steering went out, engineers reasoned, drivers could still wrestle the cars to the side of the road.
As more complaints came in, GM kept viewing the problem as "annoying but not particularly problematic," Valukas wrote. "Once so defined, the switch problem received less attention, and efforts to fix it were impacted by cost considerations that would have been immaterial had the problem been properly categorized in the first instance," his report said.
In a critical failure to link cause and effect — and one that Valukas references often in his report — engineers trying to diagnose the problem didn't understand that the air bags wouldn't inflate in a crash if the engines stalled, failing to protect people when they needed it most.
In the meantime, GM customers, most unaware of the switch problem, kept buying the compact cars. Sales topped 200,000 in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
From 2004 to 2006, multiple GM committees with convoluted acronyms considered fixes without a sense of urgency, Valukas wrote. Crashes and deaths mounted, catching attention from company lawyers and engineers. Yet no one at GM figured out that the bad switches were disabling the air bags.