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GM engineer who led 2012 ignition switch analysis retires

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(Crain News Service photo)
Jim Federico

By Mike Colias, Crain News Service

DETROIT (May 6, 2014) — General Motors Co. said May 5 that engineering executive Jim Federico has retired, the second high-level engineer to depart in recent weeks as GM shuffles its product development structure in the wake of its recall crisis.

Mr. Federico, 56, a top GM engineer who in recent years led the company’s global small-car development and vehicle integration, is retiring after a 36-year GM career “to take on new engineering and design challenges outside of the auto industry,” according to an internal email dated May 5 and obtained by Automotive News.

Mr. Federico led a team of GM engineers in the fall of 2012 that analyzed a defective ignition switch, more than a year before GM recalled 2.6 million cars with the part.

GM is the subject of at least four federal probes into its handling of the faulty switch, which the company has linked to at least 13 deaths since 2004. GM has said its engineers discovered as early as 2001 that the switch could slip out of the run position, disabling power steering and airbags.

A GM spokesman confirmed Mr. Federico’s decision to retire, saying it is unrelated to the ignition switch issue. His departure is effective immediately.

Increasing torque

Mr. Federico in October 2012 oversaw a group of engineers that discussed whether to increase the torque on the switch to prevent it from slipping, according to a document released last month by a congressional committee investigating GM's handling of the switch defect. The team also explored why the defective ignition switch was keeping sensors in the cars from deploying airbags.

In a May 2013 deposition in a wrongful-death case against GM, engineer Brian Stouffer said Mr. Federico’s main contribution to the investigation was “helping with resources” as the issue was studied. Mr. Stouffer said another executive had since taken over for Mr. Federico in that role because “he had a workload that was excessive.”

Lance Cooper, the lawyer who deposed Mr. Stouffer while representing the family of a Georgia woman who died in 2010 when her Chevrolet Cobalt crashed, told Automotive News in March that Mr. Federico was the next GM employee he planned to depose. Instead, GM settled the case in September 2013.

On April 22, GM said that John Calabrese, 55, vice president of global engineering, would retire as part of a plan to divide GM's engineering organization into two divisions. GM product-development chief Mark Reuss said at the time that Mr. Calabrese's departure was not related to the ignition switch issue.

Also last month, GM CEO Mary Barra said that the company has suspended two engineers with pay in connection with GM's internal probe of the ignition switch problem.

Reported to Barra

Mr. Federico reported directly to Ms. Barra beginning in 2011, when she became head of global product development. In late 2011, as GM’s chief engineer for electric vehicles, Federico spoke out in defense of the Chevrolet Volt after one of the cars caught fire following a government crash test.

The internal memo from Ken Morris, promoted in last month's restructuring to vice president of Global Product Integrity, calls Mr. Federico "one of GM's leading and accomplished engineers."

Mr. Federico was either chief engineer or vehicle line executive on the development of several core GM vehicles in recent years, including the Buick LaCrosse, Regal and Verano and Encore; the Opel Insignia, Mokka and Adam; and the Chevy Cruze, Sonic and Spark.

He began his GM career at a Chevrolet rear-axle plant in Buffalo, N.Y., and held high-level engineering posts at Oldsmobile and Cadillac and on GM's truck-development team.

"We thank Jim for his many contributions and wish him the best in his next adventure," Mr. Morris said in the memo.

Reporter Nick Bunkley contributed to this story, which appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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