It was one of the biggest scandals in the history of the U.S. domestic auto market. From the time it was first observed in 2004 to the deadly incidents that would claim at least 124 lives in the coming years, the GM faulty ignition switch recall and resulting scandal would erase billions in value from the company and cause immeasurable pain and suffering to families across the country. 2.6 million vehicles would be affected.
Company CEO Mary Barra has repeated claims that seem to implicate GM engineers; testifying in a deposition given earlier this year that they miscategorized the issue from the very beginning.
Barra stated during her deposition that between 2004 and 2005, GM engineers observed the issue – one where a vehicle’s ignition switch could unintentionally be turned to ‘off’ – but characterized it as a “customer satisfaction issue and not a safety issue.” Barra would go on to state that “a series of mistakes were made over a period of time that caused the ignition-switch defect. This had tragic consequences.”
A report issued by a former federal prosecutor appears to corroborate her claim. In summer of 2014, the prosecutor, acting as an outside third-party, conducted his own investigation. Among other things, he found that once an issue is categorized as a customer satisfaction rather than safety issue, no questions of recalls would be raised and no one within the upper echelons of GM management would be notified.
Evidence would later show that the “switch from hell;” the name given to the switch by the very engineer who designed it, was slated for a modification in 2007. No new part number was issued, however, nor was a recall issued for switches using the old design.
Other engineers were not as complacent. A series of emails written in 2005 point to internal discussions between units of GM discussing the costs involved in the faulty switch issue. After the math had been done and showed the financial benefits of treating the issue as a warranty claim rather than a full-blown recall, one engineer pressed the issue saying, “I’m not sure it’s ok to wait. I want to discuss.” That conversation wouldn’t happen for years.
In the end, whether it was executives huddled over spreadsheets or engineers huddled over designs, nothing can bring back the lives lost and undo the pain caused by crashes induced by GM’s faulty vehicle switch and the delays that would occur before it was dealt with. The quest for answers continues nonetheless as families look for closure that may never come.