GM Pledges to Fix Safety ‘Failures,’ But Questions Remain

It is unclear whether a key factor in the vehicle-development process, uncovering a connection between the defective ignition switch and airbag failures, may exist with parts in other GM vehicles on the road today.

James M. Amend, Senior Editor

June 5, 2014

5 Min Read
GMrsquos top executives Dan Ammann left CEO Mary Barra and Mark Reuss answer questions at media briefing
GM’s top executives Dan Ammann, left, CEO Mary Barra, and Mark Reuss, answer questions at media briefing.

WARREN, MI – General Motors CEO Mary Barra today pledges to take additional actions aimed at preventing future foot-dragging or bureaucratic neglect that led to a deadly ignition-switch defect in 2.6 million vehicles, but it remains unclear if other parts-design oversights may have occurred.

“There has been dramatic change at General Motors, just look at the vehicles on the road today that are award-winning, across multiple brands and multiple segments,” Barra says during an update on the automaker’s decade-old ignition switch debacle and the release of findings from an internal investigation into the part’s history.

“There is a commitment to do great vehicles and a commitment to have a high safety culture and a high quality culture,” she adds. “A culture does not change overnight, it’s a continuum, and we’re going to take it to the next level. We will have the safest and highest-quality vehicles.”

However, it remains unclear whether a key factor in the vehicle-development process, uncovering a connection between the defective ignition switch and airbag failures, may exist with parts in other GM vehicles on the road today.

GM in 2008 redesigned the ignition switch to prevent it from slipping out of the “run” position and killing vehicle electronics connected to the air bags, but a new part number was never assigned to the redesigned switch.

A new part number would have been a red flag for both investigators within the automaker and at federal safety regulators, and while GM continues to look for similar trends in field reports, the automaker is not certain oversight of such a key step in the engineering process hasn’t occurred elsewhere.

“That is not an acceptable process,” Barra tells WardsAuto. “It never has been. It isn’t going forward.

“We feel again this was a tragic set of events and serious mistakes were made over an extended period of time on this issue.”

Mark Reuss, executive vice president-Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain at GM, says the internal investigation by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas did not look outside the ignition switch.

“The report does not address other part-number changes,” Reuss says during the briefing, which came on the heels of Barra addressing 220,000 employees around the world on the recall and investigation findings.

GM sources say the uncertainty has led GM to recall millions of other older vehicles in recent weeks. Barra says additional recalls are ahead.

Stronger safeguards are now in place to prevent such a bureaucratic oversight from occurring again, Reuss says. In short, no longer will one person be in charge of ordering part changes without reporting the redesign up the command chain, as was the case with the ignition switch in 2008.

“There are new safeguards in place,” Reuss says. “Every one of these changes goes through a specifications analyst that will be paired up with the engineer to ensure that when a part change is made by a supplier, or by the engineer, that those are accurately documented and put in our system so we can track it.”

Barra says the Valukas inquiry determined GM investigators studying the ignition-switch problem as far back as a decade “misdiagnosed” the problem in its early days of 2003 as a customer-satisfaction issue rather than a product defect. The misdiagnosis, she told employees, was exasperated by “a pattern of incompetence and neglect,” and held up a decision to perform a recall sooner.

GM employees in charge of the small-car program containing the defective ignition switch either did not follow engineering protocol or failed to pursue their suspicions earnestly enough.

“Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch,” Barra says in her address. “If this information had been disclosed, I believe in my heart the company would have dealt with this matter appropriately.

“Furthermore, numerous individuals did not accept any responsibility to drive our organization to understand what was truly happening. The report highlights a company that operated in silos, with a number of individuals seemingly looking for reasons not to act, instead of finding ways to protect our customers,” she says.

As a result, GM has fired 15 employees connected to the scandal, including two executive engineers placed on leave earlier this year. Disciplinary actions have been taken against five others.

Since the crisis emerged in February, GM has taken a number of steps to bolster its safety organization. It appointed a new safety czar, Jeff Boyer, who will report directly to Reuss and Barra. The automaker added 35 safety investigators and implemented a program where employees can report safety issues more quickly with the ability to take their concerns all the way to Barra if necessary.

GM also formed a new Global Product Integrity group aimed at enhancing safety and quality, and restructured the safety decision-making process to reach the highest levels of the company.

More changes lie ahead. The Valukas report recommends a series of additional actions in eight major areas of the automaker’s organization, and, Barra says, “I am committing the company to act on all of these recommendations.

“In each of the major areas, we have already taken action. There is much more to do, of course.  But we are going to move forcefully to complete the recommendations on an expedited timetable.”

GM’s executive team also reports details of the automaker’s third-party study of a victim’s compensation fund will be made public soon, and pledges anyone to have lost loved ones or suffered serious physical injuries from crashes connected to the defect will be considered. GM will begin accepting claims Aug. 1.

The Valukus investigation also determined that current GM leaders, such as Barra and Reuss, who played leading engineering roles during the lifecycle of the defective products, had no knowledge of the issue. The report absolves chief counsel Michael Millikin, whose group handled civil claims against GM on the part.

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