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An Engineer's Eureka Moment With a GM Flaw 357

Posted by samzenpus
from the track-it-down dept.
theodp (442580) writes "Hired by the family of Brooke Melton in their wrongful-death lawsuit against GM, engineer Mark Hood was at a loss to explain why the engine in Melton's 2005 Chevy Cobalt had suddenly shut off, causing her fatal accident in 2010. Hood had photographed, X-rayed and disassembled the two-inch ignition switch, focusing on the tiny plastic and metal switch that controlled the ignition, but it wasn't until he bought a replacement for $30 from a local GM dealership that the mystery quickly unraveled. Eyeing the old and new parts, Hood quickly figured out a problem now linked to 13 deaths that GM had known about for a decade. Even though the new switch had the same identification number — 10392423 — Hood found big differences — a tiny metal plunger in the switch was longer in the replacement part, the switch's spring was more compressed, and most importantly, the force needed to turn the ignition on and off was greater. 'It's satisfying to me because I'm working on behalf of the Meltons,' Hood said. 'It won't bring their daughter back, but if it goes toward a better understanding of the problem, it might save someone else.' Next week, GM CEO Mary Barra will testify before Congress about events leading up to the wide-ranging recall of 2.6 million vehicles."
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An Engineer's Eureka Moment With a GM Flaw

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  • by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Sunday March 30, 2014 @11:07PM (#46618457) Journal

    Yes. Manufacturers are always cutting. They'll cheapen everything they can. That in itself is not bad, but then they don't do adequate testing, because that costs money too. Nor do they calculate the costs correctly. Often they can't be bothered to consider future costs. All that matters is that the up front cost is as low as possible. They hope they can dodge having to do a massive recall a few years later.

    In the late 1980s, Ford got so cheap with heater cores that in as little as 5 years, they all developed leaks. Saw this in an '88 Escort and an '88 Grand Marquis. That Escort was junk. The too small ball joints and too small clutch were worn out after just 50,000 miles, the light switch failed, the fittings for the A/C used O-rings that failed in a few years, the plastic used in the bumpers turned brittle and would crack under the least pressure after a few years in the sun, the ignition system failed regularly, and even the steering failed once. I don't mean only that the power steering went out, no, I mean that the rack and pinion were so underdesigned that they wore out in less than 150,000 miles and could not keep the 2 front wheels pointing in the same direction! Had the car been on a highway when that happened, it could've killed. A few more cents spent on these items would have made for a much, much better car. Was stupid to introduce such huge problems to save so little.

    To add to the insanity, Ford did splurge on idiotic cosmetics. That Escort had a worthless tail fin and spoilers, and the visors had lit vanity mirrors. They couldn't even do the vanity mirrors right. They were covered with a flap held on by little pieces of velcro glued to the visor. When the visor was down and receiving a good bit of sunlight, the glue would soften up and release the flap, which would flop down and block the driver's view of the road. If the car was left parked with the visor down, the same thing would happen, and the little lights would come on. If away from the car for a few hours, the users would discover the battery was drained when they got back.

  • by TWX (665546) on Sunday March 30, 2014 @11:39PM (#46618541)
    Why can't lawsuits touch CxOs? Is it because no one is willing to sue them?

    If a dock worker can be criminally prosecuted to serve almost two decades in prison because he set what he intended to be a small fire in a submarine compartment to get off work early, ultimately for that fire to get out of control and to destroy the craft with no loss of life, then why can't individuals at the top be held civilly liable for decisions that they make that kill people, especially when they kill in multiple discrete instances?

    It looks like it should be a fairly simple matter. Find out who the corporate officers were when the part changed, assuming that it was changed after the first documented incident. Sue them for knowingly making a change to future vehicles to remove the possibility of future models having incidents that led to more deaths due to a consumer products safety issue. Sue them for the entire quantity of bonus that they made working for the company as a punitive action.
  • by blackraven14250 (902843) on Sunday March 30, 2014 @11:58PM (#46618603)
    From what I understand, it's an extremely common practice. For example, in my Scion FR-S, there's the original fuel pump, and another newer model under the same number that doesn't make a chirping noise under certain conditions (not a serious problem at all, just a bit annoying during the summer, it's triggered by heat and a long engine run time without cooling down). The difference is that the newer pumps have a green dot on the box. I imagine they do it for inventory/systems reasons - instead of having a system to handle 4-5 different part numbers for what is effectively the same part (i.e. 2013 FR-S fuel pump) as they are upgraded or redesigned, they just use the single number, so they don't have to update their entire maintenance system constantly. Don't forget, a lot of these maintenance systems don't get updated often, so there could be a mechanic ordering part X when the upgraded part is X+1 if they were switching part numbers, and a company would have to ensure the entire supply chain gets those updates.
  • by erikkemperman (252014) on Monday March 31, 2014 @02:51AM (#46619035)

    Agreed. I might just go along with the corporations-as-people idea just as soon as the first corporation is executed for having policies tantamount to murder, or gross negligence with lethal consequences, such as seems to be the case here.

    I thought this documentary [wikipedia.org] made some interesting points. It is reasonably balanced too, e.g. it includes some staunch free market fundamentalists (Milton Friedman trying to explain what externalities are, for instance).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:24AM (#46619111)

    Don't jail the directors, jail the corporation. I.e., force it to stop trading for a term. Shareholders will then sort out the directors.

  • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:50AM (#46619169) Homepage Journal

    Pretty much every pickup truck of the 80s and into the mid-nineties ran all the headlight current through the headlight switch. Besides failures being common, this also can start a fire in a broad variety of locations. I say can and not could because there's tons of these trucks still running around. You can fix the problem with a couple of relays and a couple of fuses, but most trucks in the wild haven't had the fix.

  • by Alioth (221270) <no@spam> on Monday March 31, 2014 @04:16AM (#46619245) Journal

    The brakes will remain assisted in a manual if you leave it in gear. The brake servo is powered by manifold vacuum, and all you need is that the engine be turning to create this vacuum. In a manual, the wheels will turn the engine. The power steering will also continue to operate because the engine will still be turning the power steering pump if the vehicle is in gear. So in a manual, the engine quitting is zero drama.

    The problem is in automatics because in drive the wheels can't turn the engine, so the engine comes to a complete standstill, so no vacuum for the brake servo and nothing is turning the power steering pump. Newer vehicles with electrically assisted power steering may continue to give power steering though.

  • by Overzeetop (214511) on Monday March 31, 2014 @05:31AM (#46619477) Journal

    If you can't figure out the problem from the original part, perhaps the problem is beyond your engineering capabilities.

    This guy wasn't some random engineer pullled off the street - he was their expert witness. Someone who should know quite a bit about what it is he's going to testify about in court. And yet he was unable to identify a flaw that resulted in the deaths of 13 people. If I were defense I'd be discrediting him pretty quickly.

  • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Monday March 31, 2014 @07:15AM (#46619895) Homepage Journal

    staunch free market fundamentalists (Milton Friedman trying to explain what externalities are, for instance).

    FWIW, Friedman was a monetarist [wikipedia.org] and believed in a partially-controlled economy. Not really a free marketeer, but not a fascist either.

    Oh, and every time you talk about shutting down a corporation for a "jail" period as a punishment, you'll hear the whiny refrain, "but all the jobs!". These people view every corporation as "too big to fail", rather than seeing it as an incentive opportunity to enlist every worker as a guardian of fair behavior.

    The only conclusion I can reach from this morass is that corporations are fundamentally unworkable in a free society. But most people don't care about a free society.

  • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Monday March 31, 2014 @07:23AM (#46619939) Homepage Journal

    Our society wasn't always like this and it doesn't have to remain this way.

    And it cannot, long-term. The troubling aspect is that it appears to be a positive feedback loop, and those only get interrupted by an overload/collapse of the systems that supports them.

    There's some hope that we can slipstream-replace unworking components of society with working ones, with the new opportunities that the Internet presents as a quantum leap forward. The trick is it's like changing the oil on a truck doing 80 on the Interstate while the truck driver is trying to shoot you for doing so (even though the oil is thick black syrup and he refuses to stop).

  • by fuzznutz (789413) on Monday March 31, 2014 @07:58AM (#46620165)

    In this instance we had literally millions of these switches sold, most of which performed exactly as expected. [...] Given the information available it is entirely feasible that GM and its employees were showing a good faith effort to exercise their duty of care.

    Bullshit. As a Saturn Ion owner, I can verify that even though all of these switches may not have failed spectacularly, they have NOT functioned as expected and were know to be faulty. I have already replaced my own switch TWICE at my own expense. Spend a few minutes and surf the Ion web forums and you will see that bad switches are a know problem and have been for a very long time. GM denied there was a problem even when they were still under warranty (for Ions at least).

    How many ignition switches have you ever had to replace on a vehicle? Counting the TWO I replaced on my Ion, I have replaced exactly two!

  • by PhloppyPhallus (250291) on Monday March 31, 2014 @10:50AM (#46621931) Homepage

    I worked for a major automotive component supplier who designs and builds parts for most of the major automakers. I wanted to make a few of relevant observations from my experience.

    First, all parts were extensively tested for function and safety. Designing a good test that is representative of years of field use is very difficult, but none of the automakers seemed lax in their testing requirements. Some were pretty quick to dump performance for a cost savings, but I don't know any who were, these days, willing to sacrifice on reliability. There weren't many arguments with customers about the cost of testing, and it was generally thought that some tests demanded by OEMs were needless, but we'd gladly take their money anyway.

    Second, parts were regularly improved based on analysis of returned parts. The best source of these were fleet vehicles, which provided lots of high mileage parts back to the OEM--each and every one of these returns was examined, graded (often by some poor intern), then archived for future reference should a problem develop. I remember one incident where some tiny steel spring clip broke--this had never been seen before, so the entire engineering department was re-directed to determine the cause. Thousands of old parts were pulled out of storage and re-examined. I don't think we found another broken clip, but it was a big deal.

    Lastly, parts were frequently revised for better performance, lower cost, or better reliability. Little bits and bobs, like switches, valves, fasteners, connectors, etc., were often used on numerous vehicles by a number of manufacturers. Each part had at least two sets of drawings and part numbers. One set was for our use, as the supplier, and had every detail labeled. Another drawing was prepared for the automaker, with only the details relevant to them called out explicitly. It was, in a sense, an engineering contract--we'd agreed to provide everything as described on that drawing as the same part number, but were free to change things not called out. Once I pulled up about thirty drawings produced for the same part, a tiny thing used in many of our products, to see whether we could change the part to an improved steel that was cheaper and tougher for this application. In all of the automaker drawings, the material spec was loose enough for us to change without asking for a change in the drawing. Our internal part number did change, but as far as they automakers were concerned, they were still using the same part.

    Anyway, it's quite possible that someone might make a fix to the ignition switch without GM even knowing, and certainly without requiring a change in part number. In my experience, all of the majors are actually pretty good about testing everything and they all really do want to sell people reliable cars, as even the US big three have come to realize that each lemon they put out there can sour a family of customers on their cars for life. Management can be boneheaded about a lot of things, but I really don't think this is one of them. 100% safety isn't possible, no matter how much is spent--but they all get pretty close. Just look at how the fatality rate has plummeted over the last few decades, despite more traffic and more collisions.

  • by clifyt (11768) <sonikmatter&gmail,com> on Monday March 31, 2014 @11:55AM (#46622727) Homepage

    I've had mine changed twice as well, though only once at my expense. In the first case, I couldn't shut off the car or remove the key and had to pull a fuse to do so. The dealership actually admonished me over this and told me I just needed turn the steering wheel until it clicked and I could remove it. And when I brought it in, I asked the service guy that was on the phone and dismissive to personally come out and take the key out and show me what I was doing wrong. Never got the apology and he told me that pulling the fuse caused it to stick permanently. What a fuckwad. It was replaced under warranty.

    The next one happened while driving in Alabama. Should have been under warranty as well, but we were in back countries and the dude that replaced it wanted cold cash and while GM has said if I find proof, they can repay me for it. But I don't think a hand written receipt for a switch that was pulled out of a junker will work...

    GM has really soured me on their cars. I for one won't be buying a new Saturn! (Sarcasm!!!) Actually, probably won't be buying a new GM after this.

Mediocrity finds safety in standardization. -- Frederick Crane

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