U.S. safety official sought probe of non-deploying GM airbags in 2007

Delphi: Approved part failed to meet specs

'A pattern of non-deployments' in airbags of 2003-2006 Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions.

UPDATED: 3/31/14 7:20 am ET - adds Delphi details

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration manager seven years ago recommended investigating why air bags in General Motors' 2003-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion cars weren't deploying, according to a memo issued by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The chief of NHTSA's Defects Assessment Division e-mailed other officials in the Office of Defects Investigation in September 2007, saying owner complaints from 2005 and "early warning" data about warranty repairs and injuries justified an investigation. "Notwithstanding GM's indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non-deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers," the official said.

The agency reconsidered after reviewing the data, deciding not to open a formal investigation, according to an interview between current NHTSA officials and the House committee's staff.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight panel will hear from GM CEO Mary Barra April 1 at a hearing to review decisions related to ignition-switch defects linked to the deaths of 13 people.


Officials of supplier Delphi Automotive, which supplied the ignition switches to the recalled GM cars,  told U.S. congressional investigators last week that GM approved the original part in 2002, despite the fact it did not meet GM specifications

According to one entry of the chronology in the memo, Delphi officials told the investigators that GM had approved the part, even though sample testing of the ignition switch torque was below the original specifications set by the automaker.

The committee, according to aides, does not know GM's thinking on why it may have approved a part that did not meet all specifications.

One aide, who asked not to be identified, noted that there were 60 specifications for the switch and it is not clear what the significance is of one specification being below-standard. That is one of the questions the committee intends to ask in hearings.

GM knew as early as 2001 that it was facing problems with its ignition switch, but no auto recalls were ordered until earlier this year.

A February 2005 entry in the congressional committee's chronology illustrates that engineers were grappling with what to do about the defective ignition switches.

"Engineers considered increasing or changing the ignition switch 'torque effort,' but were advised by the ignition switch engineer that it is 'close to impossible to modify the present ignition switch' as the switch is 'very fragile and doing any further changes will lead to mechanical and/or electrical problems.'"

‘Unsettling picture’

The House Committee said GM had submitted more than 200,000 documents on the ignition switches that have led to a recall that was expanded Friday to cover 2.6 million autos. The panel said NHTSA submitted about 6,000 documents.

The documents, said Republican Representative Tim Murphy, chairman of the panel's Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, "paint an unsettling picture."

Murphy did not give details on what was "unsettling" about the information his committee received. His statement was accompanied by the memo, prepared by Republican investigators.

The memo is mainly a chronology of actions taken by GM and NHTSA since the late 1990s through Friday.

The memo concludes with a series of questions, which likely will dominate Tuesday's hearing with Barra. Those questions ask why it took GM so long to identify its ignition switch problem.

"Why did GM approve ignition switches that did not meet its specifications for torque  performance? What was GM's assessment of the implications for performance and safety?" the memo also asked.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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