As many of you know by now, the Valukas report on GM’s handling of the ignition switch depicts a fat, complex organization that is deeply broken. A company with so many incompetent cogs, it is incapable of coordinating a surprise birthday party let alone a conspiracy. And that’s the most alarming part of the report – that none of the employees appear to have acted in malice or colluded to save money or protect the brand. Instead the report paints a picture of apathetic, lazy employees and an even more careless litany of incoherent processes in the mission to detect and address vehicle safety defects.
This is far more dangerous than any calculated, unscrupulous group of executives colluding to hide a safety issue. Incompetency, whether it is in engineering, investigations or the administration of both means defects just simply go unnoticed and as such unresolved. In terms of corporate responsibility it’s the equivalent of a juvenile “whatev” *shoulder shrug*.
While Ray DeGiorgio, the engineer behind the infamous undocumented part change, is mostly to blame for delaying the connection between the ignition switch and airbag non-deployments, the corporate mentality that something as vital as your ignition turning off can relegated to a “convenience issue” is scary. But this applies doubly to NHTSA as well. Remember America’s vehicle safety overseer received GM’s TSB regarding the ignition switch in 2005 and gave it the government nod.
While GM is responsible for the safety of its vehicles should NHTSA share in the blame?
The Valukas report references a crash investigation conducted by Indiana University’s Transportation Research Center of a 2006 fatal single-vehicle accident involving a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt in Wisconsin (pictured). The Valukas report says that GM had not seen that university’s 26-page report until 2014 even though it was found on GM’s servers.
The accident investigation was conducted at the request of NHTSA and references the 2005 TSB, confirms via EDR (electronic data recorder) that the ignition switch was in the accessory position during the crash and hypothesized that the ignition switch was one of two theories as to why the airbags failed to deploy. The other theory being that the first impact with a smaller telephone box may have signaled to the smart airbags that a deployment was not appropriate.
The team conducting the on-site investigation of the accident did not look closely at the link between the ignition switch and loss of power to the airbag because “such an undertaking was beyond the scope of this investigation.” If the goal of the report was to determine the cause of the airbag non-deployment how could the relationship between the ignition switch and the loss of power to the airbag not have been within scope?
The university team provided the report to NHTSA in 2007. One page two of the report, the Technical Document Page, they state that the loss of power from a faulty ignition switch was one of two theories as to why the airbags did not deploy. Did NHTSA take this and share it formally with GM? If not, why not? Are these reports reviewed by senior officials or are they simply rubber stamped and archived? Are potential defects identified referred from Special Crash Investigations (SCI), the division that requested this report, to the Office of Defects and Investigations (ODI), the group responsible for “undertaking” safety defect reviews? Could it be that NHTSA is as bureaucratically mismanaged as GM?
Keep in mind that unlike GM, NHTSA only has one single mission – oversight of vehicle safety. They are not surrounded by temptations like pleasing shareholders, cost targets or individual performance gains. Then again, given recent reports on employees at the Veterans Affairs Administration, maybe safety employees have some obscure rewarding metric on closing cases.
Last month the Department of Transportation Inspector General announced a review of NHTSA’s handling of the ignition switch recall among other things. In their review the IG should consider looking into the general information sharing practices between SCI and ODI when it comes to vehicle defects.
While the Valukus Report was intended to focus on GM’s handling of the defective part, it raises questions about the effectiveness of federal regulators who had similar (if not more) information than GM regarding the ignition failures and the non-deployment of airbags.
While Mr. Valukus and Ms. Barra will testify before Congress soon, NHTSA won’t likely be called to the Hill upon the completion of the Inspector General’s review. Depending on the IG review, we could learn more about if or how much blame NHTSA could share with GM in the timely discovery and remedy of vehicle safety defects.