By Nick Bunkley, Crain News Service
DETROIT (July 29, 2014) — General Motors Co. treated isolated reports of flimsy ignitions in its mid-sized, full-sized and luxury cars more urgently than similar but far more voluminous complaints about the less profitable Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, documents GM submitted to federal regulators show.
The documents also reveal more instances when GM quietly redesigned ignition switches without issuing a recall or removing the old parts from circulation. The newly disclosed cases, which predate the Cobalt problems, involve the same, now-fired engineer who was responsible for the Cobalt switch, Ray DeGiorgio.
The documents—chronologies related to two recalls announced June 30 covering 7.2 million Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles—show that engineers approached inadvertent vehicle shutoffs as a more serious concern in those cases. They quickly implemented a solution even though there were no crashes and no evidence that the problems were widespread.
In 2003, Mr. DeGiorgio approved a redesigned ignition switch just months after a Michigan customer with “approximately 50 keys and a set of brass knuckles” attached to a Pontiac Grand Am ignition key demonstrated that the car could shut off if driven over a speed bump at more than 30 mph. Though a dealership was unable to replicate the problem, the complaint was deemed serious enough for the Grand Am's quality brand manager to meet personally with the customer.
A GM spokesman, Alan Adler, last week described the redesign as “more routine” than what happened with the Cobalt, though he couldn't provide further details on why it occurred.
“It wasn't because of anything that was seen as a safety issue,” Mr. Adler said. “Part changes are not unusual.... Engineers are constantly working on a vehicle. They don't just launch and then stop.”
In early 2004, GM said Mr. DeGiorgio approved modifying the switch used in the Pontiac Grand Prix—which shared parts with the Grand Am—without changing the part number. CEO Mary Barra has said Mr. DeGiorgio's decision not to change the part number when redesigning the Cobalt ignition switch in 2006 was a violation of “Engineering 101.”
Later, GM redesigned the switch used in the Cadillac CTS and SRX after some employee test drivers accidentally turned off the ignition with a knee while driving “competitively.” Neither the chronologies nor documents from the supplier, Delphi Automotive, cite any customer complaints as a factor, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not show any complaints about stalling filed by CTS or SRX owners before the change was made.