DETROIT — Inside General Motors, they called it “the switch from hell.”
The ignition switch on the steering column of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small cars was so poorly designed that it easily slipped out of the run position, causing engines to stall. Engineers knew it; as early as 2004, a Cobalt stalled on a GM test track when the driver’s knee grazed the key fob. By GM’s admission, the defective switches caused over 50 crashes and at least 13 deaths.
Yet inside the auto giant, no one saw it as a safety problem. For 11 years.
A 315-page report by an outside attorney found that the severity of the switch problem was downplayed from the start. Even as dozens of drivers were losing control of their vehicles in terrifying crashes, GM engineers, safety investigators and lawyers considered the switches a “customer satisfaction” problem, incorrectly believing that people could still steer the cars even though the power steering went out when the engines stalled. In safety meetings, people gave what was known in the company as the “GM nod,” agreeing on a plan of action but doing nothing.
“The decision not to categorize the problem as a safety issue directly impacted the level of urgency with which the problem was addressed and the effort to resolve it,” wrote Anton Valukas, the former federal prosecutor hired by GM to produce the report.
Some experts applauded the transparency in the GM report, but not everyone is buying its narrative, including family members of people killed and some lawyers suing the company.
Laura Christian, whose daughter Amber Marie Rose was killed in a Maryland Cobalt crash, still questions whether GM leaders knew about the problem — even though Valukas found that top executives, including CEO Mary Barra, didn’t know about the switch problem until last December. Christian said the internal investigation is a start, but she hopes the Justice Department goes deeper and holds some employees criminally liable.