THE GM RECALL

GM engineer OK'd leaving part number unchanged, document shows

Ray DeGiorgio said numerous times in an April 2013 deposition for a wrongful-death lawsuit that he did not authorize the change.
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DETROIT -- A document created by supplier Delphi Automotive in May 2006 and released Friday by a congressional committee confirms that a General Motors engineer, Ray DeGiorgio, agreed to a redesign of the now-recalled ignition switch without changing the part number.

The document provides more evidence that DeGiorgio, who was suspended by GM Thursday, was not truthful when he testified last year that he was unaware of the change. E-mails released with the document indicate that it was the evidence GM had spent years seeking to explain why switches made after 2006 performed differently.

Because GM’s part number did not change, regulators and other GM officials did not know about the redesign until October 2013.

DeGiorgio said numerous times in an April 2013 deposition for a wrongful-death lawsuit that he did not authorize the change. In portions of the deposition that were released publicly for the first time today, DeGiorgio says the switch was originally designed to be easily turned in response to complaints that previous vehicles had “cheap feeling” ignitions.

“The intent was to make the transition to go from run to off with relative ease,” DeGiorgio said in the deposition.

GM now says the ignition switch can move too easily out of the “run” position and into “accessory” mode, cutting the engine and power steering along with disabling airbags in a crash.

GM has not made DeGiorgio or anyone else available to discuss the engineering behind the recalled ignition switches.

Airbag discussion

According to the newly released documents, GM engineers knew by at least Oct. 4, 2012, that the ignition switch was keeping sensors in the cars from deploying airbags. They say a team led by Jim Federico, GM’s chief engineer for global compact vehicles, met to discuss whether the airbag sensors could be programmed to remain active while the ignition was in “accessory” mode. The team also was said to discuss increasing the torque in the switch.

The next day, DeGiorgio was asked how much it would cost to design and install new switches. He estimated the engineering would cost $300,000 and that each switch would cost $150 if installed only for customers who complained about stalling or $10 per switch if replacements were put in all 1.5 million 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts.

“I am thinking we would only replaced switches on vehicles which the customer brought into the dealer,” DeGiorgio wrote.

The documents show that numerous employees at Delphi, which manufactured the switch in Mexico, signed off on the ignition-switch redesign in April 2006 but appear to provide no evidence that any GM employees beyond DeGiorgio were involved.

GM CEO Mary Barra said Thursday that the company had suspended two engineers in connection with an internal investigation of the recall. The engineers were identified by Bloomberg News as DeGiorgio and Gary Altman, who documents show declined to approve proposed solutions to the stalling complaints.

During congressional hearings last week, senators accused DeGiorgio of lying under oath. Barra admitted “the data that’s been put in front of me indicates that,” but that she was waiting for the investigation to conclude before she could be sure.

Barra e-mail released

The House committee also released a 2011 e-mail to Mary Barra, who was the automaker’s head of product development at the time, referencing problems with the Saturn Ion’s electronic power steering. The e-mail consisted of an article from The New York Times about federal auto-safety regulators upgrading an investigation of the steering problems and a comment to Barra from another executive explaining that the Ion wasn’t being included in a 2010 power-steering recall of the Cobalt because “Ion data did not justify being included.”

GM ultimately did recall the Ion for the steering problem on March 31, 2014.

The problems referenced in the e-mail are not related to the ignition-switch defect, though they affect the same vehicles. There is no mention in the e-mail of cars stalling or of faulty ignition switches.

Barra said during the congressional hearings that she did not learn that the company was investigating a problem with the cars’ ignitions until December, several weeks before she became CEO. GM, in a statement, said the e-mail “in no way contradicts Ms. Barra’s previous statements or testimony before the House or Senate subcommittees.”

GM declined to comment on any of the other documents released today.

Another document shows that in July 2013, a complaint by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about GM’s willingness to execute recalls reached the highest levels of GM’s leadership. The document shows a July 23 e-mail from Frank Borris, director of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, to GM’s director of product investigations, Carmen Benavides.

Borris’ e-mail cites several instances in which GM had to be nudged into issuing recalls, and said GM is "slow to communicate, slow to act, and, at times, requires additional effort of ODI that we do not feel is necessary with some of your peers."

Benavides forwarded the e-mail to several top executives, including Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice president of global quality and customer experience; John Calabrese, vice president of global vehicle engineering; Gerald Johnson, vice president of North American manufacturing; and Michael Robinson, vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs.

The message seemed to surprise Robinson. He replied to NHTSA’s message in a follow-up e-mail to vehicle safety executive Gay Kent, saying that it “comes like a bolt out of the blue.”

"We worked way too hard to earn a reputation as the best,” Robinson wrote, “and we are not going to let this slide.”

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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