It’s late in the evening. The sun has just dipped below the horizon. You’re cruising along the local interstate at highway speed, listening to your favorite tune on the car stereo. Just as you’re about to go around a curve, the engine loses power. Making your state of panic worse is the fact that the steering wheel seems to have seized up. That’s because the electric motor that provides the power-assist steering has turned off. You’re not sure you have the strength to safely navigate the curve, so you tap the brake to slow down. But after the second tap, the engine-supplied vacuum that provides power-assist braking is gone. Technically, the brakes still work, but bringing the vehicle to a halt before you leave your lane and collide with another car—or run off the road completely—will require a stomp instead of a tap.
That set of circumstances actually occurred many times in GM vehicles. How often is still unknown. Millions of cars were equipped with a part that didn’t provide enough resistance to, say, a key ring swinging and rotating the car key so that the ignition was suddenly turned from the on (run) position to the off (accessory) position. There’s nothing to prevent that turn from happening except the tension provided by the spring in the part, known as a detent plunger. A bigger part with a longer, stronger spring was included beginning in 2008. But it replaces one that has been in vehicles since 2003.
It seems executives at General Motors, manufacturer of the Chevy Cobalt, Chevy HHR, Pontiac G5, Pontiac Pursuit, Pontiac Solstice, the Saturn Ion, and the Saturn Sky—vehicles that have been linked to a dozen deaths caused by such sudden shut-offs—knew about the problem for more than a decade but failed to act.
Yesterday, Mary Barra, GM’s new CEO, said that the company will recall 1.5 million cars that include the part that has since been redesigned. The announcement comes just weeks after a February announcement that it planned to recall 1.6 million of the cars with the ignition switch problem.
Channeling her inner politician, Barra told GM employees in a video message that was posted online that, "Something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened." Yes. Mistakes were made. But some all-important pronouns were missing from the message. Who made the mistakes? As federal regulators look into whether the ignition problem caused several hundred deaths instead of just a dozen and whether the problem involves more GM vehicles than those currently recalled, GM will soon find itself in the U.S. Congress’ crosshairs. The House of Representatives and the Senate have already said they want to schedule separate hearings to discuss possible criminal penalties related to the automaker so belatedly disclosing the issue.
Barra said the company is changing how it handles defect investigations and recalls, and has done her best to distance GM’s current set of executives from the inevitable fallout. The damage control has gone so far as to include the creation of a new executive position dedicated to vehicle safety. But she and her colleagues will still have to provide reasonable answers to a simple question: If the ignition recall would have sent drivers in for a quick fix with a relatively cheap part—or GM could have avoided it altogether by putting the reengineered part on the assembly line—what was the calculus behind the initial decision to ignore the problem and subsequent inaction even after hundreds of complaints about sudden engine shut-offs?
“I don’t know how long you’ve been covering this business, but I’ve been in it for 50 years,” says Michael E. Bresnock, head of Transportation Technology, Inc., a Marietta, Ga.-based firm that does accident investigations and technical analysis of vehicle faults and failures. “A difference of a dollar will determine whether a car is going to roll down the assembly line.”
Another vehicle expert who actually worked for GM for decades and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, tried to imagine what the company’s executives were thinking when they repeatedly declined to make the fix. “I guess they told themselves that it is the operator’s responsibility to ensure that he or she doesn’t sit in a way that causes them to bump the ignition switch or to avoid putting too many keys on a keychain.” Asked whether they could still adhere to that reasoning knowing that most drivers were completely unaware that this could happen—and had happened, with deadly results—he imagined the executives taking morbid comfort in the fact that when a car suddenly shuts off, “You’ll still have brakes and steering; you just lose power assist.”
GM is going to need some serious legal power assist in order to step out of the hot water it’s gotten itself into.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.