The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which recently grilled GM CEO Mary Barra, has released around 80 new documents unearthed during its investigation, much of it correspondence between various GM engineers and folks at Delphi, the manufacturer who supplied the defective switch.
But one internal GM e-mail [PDF] from June 2005 details potential fixes to the problem and includes news stories from the NY Times and others about reports of Chevy Cobalts mysteriously turning off because drivers bumped the ignition switches with their keys.
Among the intended recipients of that e-mail was Doug Parks, who used to be chief engineer on the Cobalt and the Saturn Ion, another recalled vehicle. Parks was not a VP at the time, but has been the company’s VP Global Product Programs since 2012, as is indicated in these org charts provided to investigators. He’s also been described as a close associate of Barra, herself a longtime veteran at GM before rising to the CEO position at the beginning of 2014.
Another e-mail from 2005 shows that Park was indeed aware of the issue, as he asks, “can we come up with a ‘plug’ to go into the key that centers the ring through the middle of the key and not the edge/slot? This appears to be the only real, quick solution.”
The reason that it’s important for General Motors to claim that no top execs at the company knew of the ignition problem before 2009 involves a tricky condition of the company’s bankruptcy restructuring. As part of that deal, the post-bankruptcy “New GM” can not be held liable for non-accident claims related to defective vehicles produced by pre-bankruptcy “Old GM.”
However, lawyers representing plaintiffs in class-action suits against the car maker say that the fact that the ignition problem went without a recall for more than a decade is a sign that the New GM conspired to cover up the defect for several years.
The fact that a chief engineer learned of this problem at the Old GM and kept it with him (or disregarded it; which may be worse) through his rise to a high-profile vice-presidency at the company would seem to give the plaintiffs’ lawyers much-needed ammunition.
While not from a VP or other top exec, an internal 2009 e-mail about the Cobalt ignition problem gives an indication as to how the problem had become a part of GM lore by this point.
“Gentleman! This issue has been around since man first lumbered out of sea and stood on two feet,” writes one employee about the issue of changing the key hole on Cobalts to lessen the chances of the ignition being turned off. “In fact, I think Darwin wrote the first [Problem Resolution Tracking System] on this and included as an attachment as part of his ‘Theory of Evolution.’”
In what may be additional evidence of either a cover-up or pure ineptitude, an e-mail from the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation to GM from July 2013 says that the general perception of GM’s response to questions about the Cobalt investigation is that the car maker is “slow to communicate” and “slow to act.”
“The documents that we have received to date paint a disturbing and devastating picture, a beyond-worst-case systemic breakdown that led to lives needlessly lost,” said Congressmen Tim Murphy and Fred Upton in a statement to Detroit News. “But as the recalls mount, important questions remain and our investigation continues into both GM and NHTSA.”
The newly released papers also reveal that there is indeed a federal grand jury looking into the ignition delay, as some of the documents from Delphi include stamps indicating that they were submitted to the Justice Department under a grand jury subpoena.
A rep for the company confirms with Detroit News that “Delphi has been cooperating with all government agencies to provide any requested information.”
The documents also help to clarify the process through which the GM engineer responsible for the switch made under-the-radar changes that resulted in a safer ignition but failed to change the product number, meaning that defective and non-defective switches were commingled in GM inventory for years after the fix was made.
Bloomberg reports that the engineer — one of the 15 people who have been fired in the wake of the recall — authorized the switch improvements after an internal panel said no to the proposal for a new ignition switch that wouldn’t turn off with a slight tug or a bump of the knee.
E-mail correspondence from 2002 between this engineer and Delphi shows the discussion of how the existing switch could be strengthened. Delphi said that making it more difficult for the switch to be turned off could have the unintended effect of making it harder to turn the start the car with a key. This could lead to switches breaking or wearing out too quickly. “[D]o nothing,” replied the GM engineer, “maintain present course.”
Meanwhile, GM announced today that it will finally reveal details of its plan to compensate victims of crashes in cars related to the ignition defect. As Barra told lawmakers last week, accepting compensation from the GM fund would be in lieu of a victim or a victim’s family seeking legal action against the company.