Apr 11 2014, 6:15pm CDT | by Forbes
The decision to change a part, but not the part number, is central to the ignition recall crisis that has swept General Motors. Now, Congressional investigators have released what could be called GM’s “smoking gun memo” detailing how the step took place.
The information is contained a memo and a fax cover sheet made public Friday from Delphi Mechantromic Systems, a division of Delphi Corporation, the supplier that was once part of GM.
Dated May 27, 2006, the memo includes a document that explains information that supported GM’s part change, and includes GM’s approval to make the change, according to the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, which released more than 200,000 pages of documents.
One page of the memo was released previously, but that page has been updated with additional information, and the fax cover sheet makes it clear who made the fateful GM decision.
It cites GM Ray DeGiorgio, who has been placed on leave by GM, as knowing about the change to the ignition part, and allowing the switch to happen without the typical step of creating a new part number. Engineers told Automotive News that the step was a “cardinal sin’ in product design, and GM Chief Executive Mary Barra was roundly criticized for the action during Congressional testimony last week.
“Ray DeGiorgio (GM RDE) agree to implement change without changing GM p/n” or part number, the fax cover sheet reads. “He provides his approval” to implement the changes on the ignition part.
GM’s decision not to create a new part number caused years of delay in tracing a defect on nearly 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalt, Saturn Ion and other Saturn and Pontiac models. The cars’ ignitions could slip out of the “on” position, cutting power to the vehicle. There have been 13 deaths reported. GM has recalled those vehicles, and also disclosed that defective parts may have been used in earlier repairs on those vehicles.
On Thursday, GM said it would replace ignition lock cylinders “and cut, and if necessary, reprogram new keys.”
The cost of GM’s recall, originally set at $300 million, has now ballooned to $1.3 billion, including some other vehicles. Along with DeGiorgio, GM has placed Gary Altman, the senior engineer of the Cobalt, on leave.
According to Bloomberg, federal safety regulators first asked GM in 2007, a year after the secret part switch, about issues involving the Cobalt. Last year, the tension between GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, escalated.
“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,” Frank Borris, head of NHTSA Office of Defect Investigation wrote in a note to GM’s director of product investigations in July 2013, complaining of the automaker’s inconsistency and lack of coordination on recalls.
Barra, who took over as GM’s chief executive on Jan. 15, told lawmakers she became aware of an issue on the Cobalt in late December. She said senior management was briefed on the matter on Jan. 31, the day GM ordered its original recall. However, a document in the sheaf released Friday showed Barra was sent an email about the situation in 2011, two years before she said she was aware of it.
Of course, the problem with the ignitions was known by others years earlier. According to Bloomberg, a Delphi memo from June 2005 suggested that DeGiorgio was asking for tests on ignition switches.
“Ray is requesting this information,” wrote Jack Coniff, a senior project engineer at Delphi. “Cobalt is blowing up in their face in regards to turning the car off with the driver’s knee.”
However, documents show that Altman, the Cobalt manager suspended this week, rejected a fix proposed for the ignition switch because it was too expensive and would take too long.
If GM had chosen to replace ignitions when it detected the problem, the cost would have been $37.7 million, according to documents released by the House committee. The cheaper repair that GM authorized cost the company $14.2 million.
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