GM rejected better ignition part in 2001 to save money, safety advocates say

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WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- General Motors chose not to use a more robust ignition-switch part in Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars while they were being designed, a decision that may have led to deaths, safety advocates said.

GM engineers in 2001 designed an alternative to the switch it used in the 2003 Saturn Ion before it was rejected, apparently for cost reasons, according to a letter sent to GM CEO Mary Barra today by Joan Claybrook, a former head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Barra should have known about the documents identifying this alternative part before testifying to Congress, Claybrook and Ditlow said in the letter. Documents identifying the alternative switch were submitted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee ahead of its April 1 hearing.

GM’s handling of a defect now tied to 13 fatalities in accidents, after car engines lost power and air bags failed to deploy, is under investigation by NHTSA and both chambers of Congress. The largest U.S. automaker announced a charge of $1.3 billion for the recall-related repairs of 2.59 million cars in the first quarter.

The drawing of the longer spring GM eventually adopted for its 2008 model year Cobalt was included in documents released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee April 11. A chain of e-mails that explains GM’s part change in April 2006 shows the spring used was designed five years earlier.

Spring swap

The part change, approved by GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio, has become a focal part of investigations by Congress and NHTSA. DeGiorgio, according to GM documents made public, authorized the change without setting a new part number, in violation of company protocol and accepted engineering practices, and then testified during a deposition that he hadn’t approved the switch, documents show.

Consumer complaints about the ignition key in the Cobalt, Ion and other models slipping out of the run position when bumped -- a defect later traced to a too-weak spring that didn’t meet GM specifications -- slowed after the part change.

GM should make public all documents relevant to the decision to use a shorter, cheaper spring in 2001, Claybrook and Ditlow said.

DeGiorgio and another GM engineer, Gary Altman, were suspended by the automaker April 10, according to people familiar with the matter. The company announced they had put employees on paid leave over their roles in the recall without naming them.

Altman led the engineering team working on the Cobalt who rejected a part fix as too expensive.

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