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Driver Error, or Design Flaw?

Posted in Automotive News

This past February, GM recalled millions of Chevy Cobalts for an ignition switch problem that was first identified in 2005. The ignition switch could move if jostled from the “on” position to the “off” causing the engine to shut off as well as safety systems (airbags!) that in those cars functioned only when the engine was on. [The prof: you may understand why engineers would want the airbag disabled when the car wasn’t running!]. If the key in the ignition switch was weighed down by other keys or a heavy key fob, the potential was intensified. Now it is known that the problem was not just with Chevy cars, but Saturns, Buicks, Pontiacs, and Cadillacs as well. Why did it take so long for them to take action about such a serious issue?

First, a distraction was that these accidents seemed to result from driver errors or passenger behavior. According to the April addition of “Automotive News” 13 deaths have been linked to this small flaw in the ignition switches. More than half of the 13 people were not wearing seat belts. Six of the deaths were caused by four accidents in which the drivers were legally drunk. Excessive speeds of up to 40 mph OVER the speed limit were a factor 3 crashes. So it seemed obvious to the police and insurance investigators that drivers were the issue. However, not all of these accidents would normally have been fatal. The airbags didn’t deploy, seat belts didn’t lock (in the cases where there was a pretensioner and they were worn), and power steering/power breaks brakes failed mid crash. The drivers had no chance.

The Prof: a second factor is that the ignition cylinder designed was changed without the part number being changed, definitely against engineering protocols. That meant that when in cars built after a certain date the airbag problem disappeared, there was nothing to point specifically to the lock mechanism.

In an article by Danielle Ivory, Rebecca Ruiz and Bill Vlasic, from the New York Times, they argue that GM knew about the ignition switch flaw as far back as 2001. The company is now suffering for their hesitation to recall. GM’s Engineering Chief is leaving the company and the global engineering departments are being dissolved. The WSJ assumes that this is a legal strategy they are using to “fight liability claims in bankruptcy court”. Certainly, as time goes on, more cases will be linked to the ignition switch problem. GM is going to end up paying for a lot more than the $41.3 mil it would have taken for them to fix all of the switches in 2013.

– Alexander T. Dawejko


  • WSJ: GM Engineering Chief to Depart (April 22nd, 2014)
  • NYT: Sending Alerts Instead, GM Delayed Car Recalls (April 19th, 2014)
  • Automotive News: Clues in GM crashes easy to miss (April 14th, 2014)


  1. Jier Qiu
    Jier Qiu

    An article I found from points out an interesting fact that GM was “peripherally” aware of cobalt’s flaw for almost a decade. At 2005, GM already realized the ignition switch but did not take any form of action. As stated in the article, both GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA) could’ve warned the public about the defect or fixed it; however, neither took any action. NHTSA, as it’s name suggests, is founded on the purpose of reducing losses in automobile accidents, but apparently it has a nine-year lagging on addressing the fatal flaw of the 2005 Cobalt.

    Morran, Chris. “Timeline Shows GM & NHTSA Failed On Multiple Occasions To
    Prevent Deaths Tied To Ignition Switch Recall.” Consumerist. N.p., 31
    Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.

    April 23, 2014
  2. mayolj16

    GM will try to avoid having to pay for the lawsuits by using bankruptcy to deflect safety responsibility. New questions arise about the moral implications of this action, and how this will affect their image. Would people still rely on a company that does not fix a design error no matter how cheap it is, that resulted in multiple deaths? What will happen to the CEO who keeps claiming to not know anything about the flaws in the cars, while there were engineers already working on the solution? This could relate to the topic we commented on today in class about Mercedes’ CEO and the losses due to the Smart car.

    There are currently couple lawyers appealing against this action, but by now nothing has been paid to the families of the victims.

    General Motors Uses Bankruptcy to Deflect Safety Responsibility -. Nternational Committee of the Fourth International, 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. .

    April 25, 2014
  3. The vehicles involved were built by the Old GM, which was dissolved as part of the 2009 bankruptcy. In legal theory, liability resides with the Old GM – New GM, which promptly changed its name [within the hour?] to plain GM, explicitly was not supposed to face lawsuits for environmental cleanup, workplace injuries, vehicle defects etc etc. Now there apparently are legal strategies that may get around this. However, walking away from the problem (pardon the non-automotive image) is ethically problematic (the engineers involved didn’t all retire in 2009) and likely simply bad for business.
    Two issues. One is that ALL car companies face recalls on a regular basis. Despite having fewer vehicles on the road than GM, and having a reputation for quality, the company with the most recalls each of the past couple years is Toyota. But no firm is immune. Second, the new GM CEO Mary Barra was ill-prepared for her hearing, and came off poorly. That resonates of the old, bureaucratic GM where standard practice was to compartmentalize bad decisions so that senior executives could distance themselves from scandal. Why oh why did GM staff not prep her better? It’s not as though GM is too poor to hire lobbyists, and make sure they are prepped for that particular committee. But they somehow never did it – shades of 2008.

    April 29, 2014

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