Lawmakers ID engineer behind '06 GM switch redesign

Letter says switches on later-model cars failed specs, questions rationale for added recall

UPDATED: 4/1/13 1:49 pm ET -- adds details

DETROIT -- A document by which General Motors authorized redesigning the ignition switch used in the Saturn Ion and Chevrolet Cobalt in 2006 reveals that it was signed by Ray DeGiorgio, the lead engineer for the now-recalled part who during a sworn deposition last year denied any knowledge that it had been changed.

The document, dated April 26, 2006, was released by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will hold a hearing on the recall today. It is among hundreds of thousands of pages that GM has turned over to the committee.

In a letter Monday to GM CEO Mary Barra, the committee members said the redesigned switch still didn’t meet GM’s minimum specifications, citing testing done at the time by the supplier, Delphi Automotive. That would mean the switches originally installed in 2008-11 model year vehicles are defective, contradicting GM’s statements that only switches produced before the 2006 redesign were faulty and potentially linking the defect to as many as 14 more fatalities, the letter said.

GM recalled the 2008-11 cars on Friday, but said that was done only to ensure that defective ignition switches were not installed as replacement parts during repair work. GM said then that about 5,000 defective switches had been used for repairs in those vehicles but that it would replace the switches in all 824,000 of them “out of an abundance of caution” because determining which ones contained a defective switch “isn’t practical.”

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said that’s not the whole story, based on a 2½-hour meeting with Delphi officials last Thursday.

“Delphi confirmed that these testing results mean that the ignition switches currently in use in 2008-2011 vehicles do not meet GM performance specifications,” said the letter, signed by Reps. Henry Waxman of California, Diana DeGette of Colorado and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

The 2006 redesign was the second time in four years that GM gave its supplier final approval to build ignition switches for the Ion and Cobalt that didn’t meet its own torque specifications, according to today’s letter and a memo from Republican committee members posted online Sunday.

'Far below' specifications

Both communications say Delphi provided documentation showing that the switch design originally approved in 2002 was “far below” specification. The Democrats’ letter said only two of the 12 switches tested at that time had torque measurements of at least 10 Newton-centimeters, or 0.88 pound-inch. GM’s specifications called for torque of 15 to 25 Newton-centimeters.

The low torque measurement meant the ignition was more prone to slipping out of the run position while the car was being driven. GM has said that can cause airbags to fail during a crash and that it knows of 13 fatalities and 35 crashes linked to the defect.

GM declined to comment on the contents of the letter or to make DeGiorgio available to explain the discrepancy.

In an April 2013 deposition, DeGiorgio told a lawyer representing the family of a Georgia woman who was killed when her 2005 Cobalt crashed that he didn’t approve any changes to the ignition switch in 2006. An engineering firm hired by the lawyer found that switches made after 2006 contained a longer detent plunger, the internal piece that holds the key cylinder in position, but GM didn’t assign a new part number to correspond with the change.

“I was not aware of a detent plunger switch change. We certainly did not approve a detent plunger design change,” DeGiorgio said in the deposition obtained by Automotive News.

Conflicting reports?

But the Democratic committee members disputed that: “GM has provided the Committee with documentation verifying that a Ray DeGiorgio, lead design engineer for the Cobalt ignition switch, signed off on a Delphi ignition switch change on April 26, 2006.”

The newly released document bears DeGiorgio’s name and signature, listing him near the top as “GM lead engineer.” A space labeled “GM validation engineer,” which the document says is required information, is blank. Among the changes described: “New detent plunger (Catera spring/Plunger) was implemented to increase torque force in the switch.”

The letter said the redesigned switch performed better than the original one but still did not meet specification in Delphi’s testing. GM didn’t assign a new part number to the switch when it was redesigned, which former GM engineers told Automotive News was a violation of company protocol.

In a June 2013 deposition for the Georgia case, which the automaker settled last fall, GM’s program engineering manager for the Cobalt said he had not previously known that the switch used in the 2005 Cobalt fell short of GM’s specifications. The engineer, Gary Altman, said the car never should have been sold if the switch did not meet the minimum performance requirements.

Warranty claims

The committee members also said their researchers found 133 warranty claims for ignition switch problems out of 150,000 records turned over by GM. The claims, which date from June 2003 through June 2012, include numerous references to cars shutting off when driving over bumps and note that dealership technicians were able to duplicate the problem in many cases.

One complaint, filed in January 2007 by a 2006 Saturn Ion owner, reads: “Car dies out at times when hitting a bump. Looks like ignition turns off. Tech road tested. Found weak spring in ignition switch as cause.”

In a May 2013 deposition, Brian Stouffer, a GM engineer who began investigating ignition switch complaints in 2011, described the complaint rate for the Cobalt and Ion as “very, very low.”

“For this huge volume of vehicles, there really aren’t that many,” Stouffer said. “On close to 500,000 vehicles, I have 100 complaints for that, which is a very, very low complaint rate.”

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