Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. But when you look at the General Motors defective ignition switch catastrophe in hindsight, it leaves you wondering “how in the world did that happen?”
It is not exactly a comedy of errors, and there’s nothing funny about it, but it did result from a series of bad decisions on the part of at least one GM engineer, Ray DeGiorgio, who was responsible for approving use of the new switch. DeGiorgio admitted that he knew it did not meet what is known as torque specifications.
Torque specifications for a car’s ignition switch relate to the resistance of the switch when being turned to start the car. Reportedly, GM wanted a switch that was easier to turn, more like European cars. The problem with the lesser torque turned out to be that the switch would backtrack from the “on” position to the “accessory” position. This caused the car engine to stop just as if the driver had turned it off. The problem was that drivers did not know it was going to happen.
After the switch was approved by DeGiorgio, it started to become apparent that it did not function properly. Four years passed before DeGiorgio arranged a fix for the switch with the manufacturer. It’s good that a fix was arranged, right? Not exactly. Failing to comply with GM procedures, he did not change the part number for the modified switches. This resulted in keeping GM personnel from connecting up incidents of airbag failure with the faulty switches, delaying the ultimate recall by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
An investigation of how the faulty switches ended up being installed in vehicles found that DeGiorgio viewed the switch as a nuisance rather than a safety concern. He referred to the switch in an internal e-mail as “the switch from hell” because problems kept popping up. The report noted that he was more concerned about problems with the switch that prevented starting in cold weather. When the switch was fixed, DeGiorgio’s primary interest was the cold weather problem. That it also fixed the more serious problem of stalling was somewhat inadvertent.
The fallout from the GM switch problem includes numerous deaths and injuries, congressional hearings, hundreds of lawsuits, and DeGiorgio being fired, along with 14 other GM employees. Humans normally learn from their mistakes. Let’s hope that is true of this troubling case of product liability.
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