DETROIT -- General Motors’ investigation into the mishandling of faulty ignition switches spreads blame among dozens of employees at various levels of the automaker, but it says the problem began and then continued unresolved for years largely because of “a single engineer” who just lost his job.
The engineer, Ray DeGiorgio, first approved a part that he knew did not meet specifications, secretly authorized changing it, then misled coworkers who were looking into complaints about it. He played a far larger role in the 315-page report by former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas than any other employee. And he is now among 15 people GM dismissed over what CEO Mary Barra characterized as a pattern of “misconduct and incompetence.”
Ironically, it was DeGiorgio who ultimately fixed the part he referred to in a 2002 e-mail as “the switch from hell.” But by the time anyone else in the company figured out what he had done, GM says the switch had cost 13 people their lives.
“He actually changed the ignition switch to solve the problem in later model years of the Cobalt, but failed to document it, told no one, and claimed to remember nothing about the change,” Valukas wrote.
Valukas’ report says there is “no question” that DeGiorgio, the switch’s design release engineer since 1999, knew it fell short of GM’s specifications when he approved it in 2002, though DeGiorgio told investigators who interviewed him that he didn’t realize it was a safety risk.
There’s no evidence anyone else knew the switch was out-of-spec at the time, the report says; neither did DeGiorgio tell anyone when issues with the part were brought to his attention multiple times.
When one engineer specifically asked DeGiorgio in 2004 whether the switch met torque specifications, DeGiorgio didn’t respond. Evidence the investigators gathered showed that he started two e-mails but never sent them. He also rejected another engineer’s suggestion around the same time that the torque be increased after a Cobalt stalled during a media test-drive event.
Instead, DeGiorgio was consumed by a problem in which cars with the switch were failing to start in cold weather, something the report says was “a personal embarrassment to DeGiorgio.”
While working on a fix for that issue, he also began discussing options for increasing the torque with employees at Delphi Automotive, which manufactured the switch in Mexico. He ended up signing off in April 2006 on a new design that Delphi had originally created five years earlier -- meaning the change “was made at no cost,” the report says -- despite his assertion that such a modification would be nearly impossible. But he didn’t change the part number, an action that violated GM protocol and impeded others at GM from tracing the cause of airbag failures in crashes.
“For his part, DeGiorgio remembers none of this and offers no explanation for why he did not change the part number,” the report says. “Had others at GM known that the ignition switch had been changed during model year 2007, it is highly likely they would have concluded their investigation much more swiftly and recalled the Cobalt and other cars earlier.”