“Negligence is a criminal charge,” she said.
The Valukas report makes no mention of negligence. But it says plenty about incompetence throughout GM.
THE NEW SWITCH
In the late 1990s, GM patented a new ignition switch designed to be cheaper, less prone to failure and less apt to catch fire than previous switches. But in prototype vehicles, the switch worked poorly. Veteran switch engineer Ray DeGiorgio had to redesign its electrical system.
The switch had mechanical problems, too. It didn’t meet GM’s specifications for the force required to rotate it. But increasing the force would have required more changes. So in 2002, DeGiorgio — who made several critical decisions in this case — approved the switch anyway. He signed an email to the switch supplier, “Ray (tired of the switch from hell) DeGiorgio.”
Almost immediately, GM started getting complaints of unexpected stalling from drivers of the Saturn Ion, the first car equipped with the switch. The complaints continued when the switch was used for the Cobalt, which went on sale in 2004. Yet it wasn’t seen as a safety issue. Even if the engine stalled and the power steering went out, engineers reasoned, drivers could still wrestle the cars to the side of the road.
As more complaints came in, GM kept viewing the problem as “annoying but not particularly problematic,” Valukas wrote. “Once so defined, the switch problem received less attention, and efforts to fix it were impacted by cost considerations that would have been immaterial had the problem been properly categorized in the first instance,” his report said.
In a critical failure to link cause and effect — and one that Valukas references often in his report — engineers trying to diagnose the problem didn’t understand that the air bags wouldn’t inflate in a crash if the engines stalled, failing to protect people when they needed it most.