DETROIT – General Motors’ deadly ignition switch flaws emerged from an effort to improve its cars.
As the company began developing new small cars in the late 1990s, it listened to customers who complained about “cheap-feeling” switches that required too much effort to turn and set about making switches that would work more smoothly and give drivers the impression that they were better designed, GM switch engineer Ray DeGiorgio testified in a lawsuit deposition in spring 2013.
The switches, though, were too loose, touching off events that led to at least 13 deaths, more than 50 crashes and a raft of legal trouble for the Detroit automaker.
Former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, hired by GM in March to investigate the switch problems, told a congressional subcommittee last month that GM wanted each small-car ignition to “feel like it was a European sports car or something.”
But as it turned out, the new switches in models such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion can unexpectedly slip from “run” to “accessory,” causing engines to stall. That shuts off the power steering, making cars harder to control, and disables air bags in crashes.
The problem led GM to recall 2.6 million small cars in February and has touched off federal investigations and prodded GM to review other safety issues, leading to 54 recalls this year covering 29 million vehicles.
In a wrongful death case in Georgia, DeGiorgio testified that he started out trying to make the switches easier to turn. But from the beginning he was consumed by electrical issues in the switch, not its mechanical parts.
When the switch supplier, Delphi, pointed out tests showing the switches turned too easily, DeGiorgio told Delphi not to change them because he was concerned mechanical alterations would harm the switch’s electrical performance, according to Valukas.
In the end, DeGiorgio approved switches that were far below GM’s specifications for the force required to turn them. The result was a smooth-turning key, but also one that could slip out of position. Several years later, DeGiorgio signed off on a design change that fixed the problem, but he didn’t change the part number, which stymied later attempts to figure out what was wrong with the cars.