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GM Names and Fires Engineers Involved In Faulty Ignition Switch 307

Posted by Soulskill
from the bet-you-didn't-think-you'd-be-in-the-headlines-for-ignoring-an-email dept.
An anonymous reader writes 'Thirteen people have died because of faulty ignition switches in General Motors vehicles. The company has recalled 2.6 million cars, paid a $35 million fine, and set up a fund to compensate the victims. Now, an internal investigation into the incident has shown that the company was aware of the problem since 2002. 15 employees have been fired over what CEO Mary Barra calls "misconduct and incompetence." The report singles out Ray DeGiorgio, an engineer who allegedly approved a part that did not meet specifications and misled coworkers who were investigating complaints. "He actually changed the ignition switch to solve the problem in later model years of the Cobalt, but failed to document it, told no one, and claimed to remember nothing about the change."

"There's no evidence anyone else knew the switch was out-of-spec at the time, the report says; neither did DeGiorgio tell anyone when issues with the part were brought to his attention multiple times. When one engineer specifically asked DeGiorgio in 2004 whether the switch met torque specifications, DeGiorgio didn't respond. Evidence the investigators gathered showed that he started two e-mails but never sent them. ... Instead, DeGiorgio was consumed by a problem in which cars with the switch were failing to start in cold weather, something the report says was "a personal embarrassment to DeGiorgio.'"'
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GM Names and Fires Engineers Involved In Faulty Ignition Switch

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:08AM (#47179639)

    This may not be a conspiracy, but it is an indication of a systemic, cultural failure endemic to the company.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:16AM (#47179729)

      I don't know. Toyota had faulty firmware that killed people, and yet everyone is still flocking to buy their cheap cars.

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        Toyota had a long history of producing reliable and relatively cheap to run vehicles, which was a good enough reason for many people to buy them. GM... doesn't.

      • by Bengie (1121981)
        At least Toyota took is seriously and eventually paid NASA to look over their system. GM just tried to ignore the issue and cover it up.
    • by hey! (33014) on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:55AM (#47180111) Homepage Journal

      But I see little to indicate that other car manufacturers have more trustworthy cultures. In a world where an automotive engineer will sell his soul for a nickel on a car that retails for over twenty-thousand dollars (in the words of a close friend who is an automotive engineer), you can't trust a car company not to kick the can down the road so they can make their quarterly profit projections.

      Nor should we have to trust them. There needs to be someone else, someone for whom the immediate effect on the company's bottom line is not paramount, keeping watch over the company's safety practices.

    • by Huge_UID (1089143)
      I think you may be wrong.

      http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2014/06/03/chrysler-general-motors-ford--may-sales/9788117/ [usatoday.com]

      "General Motors' sales of new vehicles appear unfazed by its widely publicized series of recalls, some of them linked to fatalities. GM said sales in May were up 13% from a year ago for its best month since August 2008."

    • by JeffSh (71237)

      i just bought one. Astroturf?

    • by geeper (883542) on Friday June 06, 2014 @01:40PM (#47181165)
      You're right...I'm never going to get a GM...wait, they are announcing next seasons Dancing with the Stars cast, oh goody, it's my favorite... sorry, now...what were we talking about again?
    • by savuporo (658486)

      How about firing people that installed policies for engineers to NOT speak out about faults and banned them from even talking about it ? Who compiled the not to be used word list of "hindenburg", "death trap" etc ?

      Maybe search for causes in your legal and PR and HR departments first. Oh, and execs.

  • by Oysterville (2944937) on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:11AM (#47179669)
    Why did GM write into their bail-out a few years ago the clause that they cannot be held responsible for malfeasance which occurred prior to that bail out?

    Makes me sick thinking about it.
    • Why did GM write into their bail-out a few years ago the clause that they cannot be held responsible for malfeasance which occurred prior to that bail out?

      Makes me sick thinking about it.

      Irrelevant of if they knew about it... if it were you, wouldn't you make such a term if you could get the signers to agree to it?

    • by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:19AM (#47179749)

      While I've seen some engineers do bad things because they were afraid of management, I've never seen a situation in a company this size where the organization was good but one bad engineer was able to release something terrible with no oversight. This is almost by definition of what it means to be a good organization: you shoudl not place tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of responsibility onto your wage slave, no matter how senior he is (never mind that real physical injury may be involved).

      It's always, always been bad management, frequently that went straight to the top. But then with most American car dealers we already know that. I find it amusing that they blame the unions all the time, but my two "Japanese" cars, both manufactured in America, have been excellent and are still running flawlessly 9 years later, while my two "American" cars (made in Mexico) I was happy to be rid of at 5 years.

      • Sorry I meant car manufacturers, not dealers. I live in Texas I have a whole other hatred of car dealers.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Bodero (136806)

        This is almost by definition of what it means to be a good organization: you shoudl not place tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of responsibility onto your wage slave, no matter how senior he is

        Well, first of all, using the loaded term "wage slave" outs your biases, but whatever. I don't consider a salaried engineer a "wage slave," but maybe your definition includes anyone at all with a boss.

        Second, this was an ignition switch. One part out of tens of thousands. Should the CEO be signing off on every

      • by timeOday (582209)

        I've never seen a situation in a company this size where the organization was good but one bad engineer was able to release something terrible with no oversight.

        Are you assuming one person was fired? 15 people were fired.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        I find it amusing that they blame the unions all the time, but my two "Japanese" cars, both manufactured in America, have been excellent and are still running flawlessly 9 years later, while my two "American" cars (made in Mexico) I was happy to be rid of at 5 years.

        Guess what? "German" cars made in Mexico are shit too, while German cars made in Germany are... well, often also shit, but less shitty than when they're assembled in Mexico.

    • Why did GM write into their bail-out a few years ago the clause that they cannot be held responsible for malfeasance which occurred prior to that bail out?

      Makes me sick thinking about it.

      GM's "bailout" was actually a managed bankruptcy with the terms pre-arranged, and bankruptcy in most US states incldues the discharge of liability, not just debts. It is done that way so creditors can't short-circuit the bankruptcy system and just "Wait to sue" until after you're out of bankruptcy protection.

      This liability discharge is one of the main features of bankruptcy. It is why the company that polluted the Elk River in West Virginia (leaving the 2/3 of the state without safe drinking water--some of them to this day) declared bankruptcy in short order after the incident--they knew they had no possible defense against the legal onslaught that was coming, and their executives (who were owed sizable bonuses--coal executives really rake it in) wanted to make sure they filed for bankruptcy BEFORE anybody filed suit, because if a suit was pending when they filed bankruptcy that party could go to court to stop bonuses and incentive pay owed to executives from being payed out. Because if the company was facing a bankruptcy judge and had an already-filed suit for billions in damages he would never (EVER) approve bonus payments to executives and would probably listen pretty favorably to a creditor who insisted the executives not be able to loot the place ahead of their judgement.

      • by devman (1163205) on Friday June 06, 2014 @01:48PM (#47181249)
        A little background research show lawsuits were filed on Jan 10, one day after the event, Freedom Industries did not file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy until Jan 17. Really it is more about the limited liability of the company stake holders and officers than bankruptcy law that is upsetting.
  • ...but very dark.

  • And how many were fired believing that doing the dumb stuff their superiors told them to do would let them avoid being sacrificial goats because higher chains of command would take responsibility? Suppose I should RTFA...

  • by Squidlips (1206004) on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:19AM (#47179755)
    Of course.
    • I didn't see any mention of who the other 14 fired individuals were.
    • by jbmartin6 (1232050) on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:31AM (#47179873)
      Got this from WSJ:

      As expected, the report exonerated the CEO, executives who report directly to her and the company's board of directors. Fifteen employees have been dismissed from GM because of misconduct or failure to respond properly as evidence of the ignition switch's defects mounted, Ms. Barra said. More than half of those officials were executives, and Ms. Barra said five other GM employees have been disciplined but remain with the company. Ms. Barra wouldn't identify the employees by name, except to confirm that two low-ranking engineers involved with the design of the defective switch were dismissed. Also fired were lawyers and officials responsible for safety and dealings with regulators, according to people familiar with the matter.

  • by MetalliQaZ (539913) on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:22AM (#47179781)

    I'm somewhat surprised that the company named names. I suppose the result of the investigation made it clear that his intention was only to cover his own ass, which must have tipped the scales.

    Now if only we could get names of lawbreakers out of government agencies. I know it will be a cold day in Hell before that happens, but it would be nice

    • It depends. If he was a licensed PE he had a professional and legal obligation to intervene with the switch, regardless of how he felt about it. If he wasn't a PE, then whomever the PE was that was managing him and approving his designs is to blame.

      • by PPH (736903)

        If he wasn't a PE, then whomever the PE was that was managing him and approving his designs is to blame.

        There may be no PE approval in the design process. There is an exemption from such a requirement for engineering done in-house for the manufacture of a product.

        Some federal agency with automotive oversight may have added an explicit requirment for PE review and signature of designs. But this is unlikely, as PE licensing is under states' jurisdiction.

      • by 3dr (169908)

        True. It's a shame, really, since his PRIDE is what apparently kept him from sucking it up and fixing it. His pride killed these people. And no design reviews of the switch for torque and electrical capacity? The managers have a role in this, too.

        But in this whole scenario, I think the one thing that surprises me is how they are designing yet another ignition switch. How many switch variants do there need to be across a manufacturer's models? I'd divide it across RFID-enabled keys vs. plain-Jane metal keys.

      • by slinches (1540051)

        Actually, there's no regulation that requires a PE sign off on products like automobiles.

        From Wikipedia: [wikipedia.org]

        Since regulation of the practice of engineering is performed by the individual states in the U.S., areas of engineering involved in interstate commerce are essentially unregulated. These areas include much of mechanical, aerospace and chemical engineering—and may be specifically exempted from regulation under an "industrial exemption." An industrial exemption covers engineers who design products such as automobiles that are sold (or have the potential to be sold) outside the state where they are produced, as well as the equipment used to produce the product

      • A PE licensed sign-off is required as far I know on construction of buildings and plant equipment like pumps. It is not required for automotive parts or parts in general.
      • by sjbe (173966) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:12PM (#47180337)

        If he was a licensed PE he had a professional and legal obligation to intervene with the switch, regardless of how he felt about it. If he wasn't a PE, then whomever the PE was that was managing him and approving his designs is to blame.

        In automotive engineering PEs are a rarity. There is no requirement whatsoever that a PE be involved or that one signs off on any designs. You find PEs in civil engineering and some aerospace and a few other fields but most engineering does not require such a certification. There would be a production part approval and there would be an engineer of some sort who would be responsible for the design and production. Most parts in US automotive production require a PPAP document to be completed for both design and production processes. It's usually a pointless waste of time but there is a formality to the process and it does assign responsibilities.

    • Assuming that was under the corporate umbrella at the time
    • by TWX (665546)

      I'm somewhat surprised that the company named names.

      I am surprised too. That could be a violation of labor law since it sounds like the disclosure was made voluntarily by the company, as opposed to being demanded in a court of law.

      GM might have just opened itself up to lawsuits from those that were fired, and I don't mean old-GM, but the current incarnation. It depends on the laws of the state in which the people were employed. In my state this would be illegal.

  • It's always the little people that do the real damage! Not anybody at the top!

    • It's always the little people that do the real damage! Not anybody at the top!

      According to the article, 15 people were fired and this includes some "senior leaders and executives"

  • Heard this on NPR, at one point a company representative said something akin to "the only test of if the company changes are enough is if this happens again". In other words, "just wait, if we don't kill a bunch of people again everything worked out!".
    • by rahvin112 (446269)

      You are deliberately misreading that company comment. The statement is "we lied in the past so you won't believe us if we say we fixed it so the proof that it's fixed is that it doesn't happen again". It's a major admission.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by bluefoxlucid (723572)

      13 people died in incidents somehow related to the ignition switch turning off the engine.

      This is across how many GM cars sold? Tens of millions? It looks like a non-issue to me. I mean seriously, your keyring is too heavy and so shuts off your car's engine?

      People occasionally choke on hotdogs. More people have died because of faulty hotdog design in the past year than GM has claimed in the past 20 years.

    • Heard this on NPR, at one point a company representative said something akin to "the only test of if the company changes are enough is if this happens again". In other words, "just wait, if we don't kill a bunch of people again everything worked out!".

      Not to defend GM when they don't deserve it (they don't) but how else will you really, truly know for certain if the changes worked? Just practically speaking the only way to really know if certain types of changes are effective in the real world is to try it in the real world. You can plan and evaluate until the cows come home but sooner or later you have to try the solution out for real. Yes it's scary but sometimes there aren't any alternatives.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by drinkypoo (153816)

        Just practically speaking the only way to really know if certain types of changes are effective in the real world is to try it in the real world. You can plan and evaluate until the cows come home but sooner or later you have to try the solution out for real.

        ObligatoryCommieComment: That's what's wrong with capitalism. GM's goal is to make as much profit as possible. Admitting they were wrong opens them up to having to shell out money, so there's motivation to hide facts.

        In theory, capitalism is supposed to provide reward mechanisms which improve production, but that ain't necessarily so. But it does necessarily drive corporations to drive down costs. If it's not in safety, it will be somewhere else, like maintainability.

  • by mcmonkey (96054) on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:30AM (#47179871) Homepage

    According to this NPR story:
    http://www.npr.org/2014/03/31/... [npr.org]

    Scott Oldham of Edmunds.com had a test drive of the Cobalt in 2004, with a GM engineer in the car. Multiple times Oldham's knee hit the key fob and car shut down.

    Also, a major factor preventing identification of the ignition switch issue (or at least providing plausible deniability) is the part number. GM had 2 sets of cars: one set supposedly had this issue, the other did not. Both had the same ignition switch, so if there was a difference between the two sets, the ignition switch was not it.

    Now we know the ignition switch was changed, but the part number stayed the same, making it difficult to correctly identify the issue. We're supposed to believe a single engineer was responsible for changing a part but not the part number?

    Not that it matters much to me. My car searches start with Consumer Reports reviews and reliability ratings, and so no GM car has been in consideration for a while.

    • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Friday June 06, 2014 @11:44AM (#47179995)

      I'm not sure why you assert that Oldham was a liar.

      One of the articles above has this excerpt:

      When one engineer specifically asked DeGiorgio in 2004 whether the switch met torque specifications, DeGiorgio didn’t respond. Evidence the investigators gathered showed that he started two e-mails but never sent them. He also rejected another engineer’s suggestion around the same time that the torque be increased after a Cobalt stalled during a media test-drive event.

      The media test event refers to the Oldham test drive.

      One of the major difficulties in isolating the problem was the ignition switch was changed for 2007 and newer Cobalts but the part number was not changed. So internal investigators could not easily identify the problem. All the investigators knew was something was different about 2006 and older models.

      • by sconeu (64226) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:09PM (#47180291) Homepage Journal

        He's not asserting that. He's asserting that GM is calling Oldham a liar by saying that "nobody knew about it", when Oldham had already raised the question.

        • Here is what the article says: "There's no evidence anyone else knew the switch was out-of-spec at the time," GM did not call Oldham a liar. In fact an engineer tried to follow up with DeGiorgio about potential torque issues. As far Oldham is concerned, he knew something was not right about the model he tested. GM failed to follow up on his concerns, but I don't see how they called him a liar. What GM is asserting only DeGiorgio really knew that the switch had a design defect and kept that secret from othe

    • If your knee bumps the key fob, something is wrong. Scoot your seat back.
      • by JustNiz (692889)

        Its not the drivers fault, or the engineer who installs the key mechanism, its the fault of a bad designer that the key hole is placed in a position in the cabin where the key could ever accidentally get hit with your knee (or anything else).

    • by richlv (778496)

      maybe a law prohibiting to change part (product) bur not its number would help here a bit

  • Can you say "patsy" ?
  • Yes, but the question is WHY did this one person feel it necessary to hide some defect from management? Me thinks there has been a scapegoat here as I believe most, if not all, of these types of cases involve employees at various levels feeling pressured into delivering some end result but not be provided the resources and/or support needed for that to occur. Unless someone is just plain evil or sick at heart and is hiding defects in critical car parts to somehow kill other people it really doesn't make s
    • I'm not saying that there wasn't scapegoating but from the article the facts are that this one engineer originally designed the switch. So there might be some ego and embarrassment about a part he designed was faulty. It would explain why he would change the design and not let others know. A Star Trek analogy would be Lewis Zimmerman [memory-alpha.org] and his embarassment that his EMH Mark I holograms were widely rejected and relegated to menial tasks especially since he used his own image as their template.

      There is also a

    • "one guy did this"
      15 people have been fired so far.

  • Was a friend. I want someone in jail for this.
  • by Polo (30659) *

    Step 1: assign blame.

    Everything about this says bad corporate culture.

  • by Streetlight (1102081) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:02PM (#47180225) Journal
    It took quite a lot of time, but the NYT posted the report and I downloaded it and read all the report up to the point it makes recommendations about reorganizing some of GM's administrative structure, which I skimmed. The folks involved in this debacle behaved like they were in a Marx Brothers movie. There's the GM Nod in which committee members all nodded that things would be done and when they left the room did nothing and the the crossed arms pointing which meant the individuals crossed arms pointing to others meaning they weren't going to do anything. There seemed to be hundreds of instances when folks couldn't remember what went on in the multiple meetings about the ignition switch issue. There apparently is an urban legend at GM that became standard operating procedure that notes were not to be taken at meetings as well as minutes. No wonder no one remembered what they were told or said. What's it called, probable deniability?

    Just one situation out of many struck me as showing the engineers' incompetence: At one point it became clear that model year Cobalts after 2007 did not have the problem with the ignition switch where it would move from run to accessory just by brushing the key fob hanging from the inserted key with clothing. A couple of guys, including an intern, went to a junk yard to examine a car that had been involved in some kind of accident. The intern noticed that the ignition switched required very little torque to switch from run to accessory so the group got a fisherman's scale to measure the torque. They then got appropriate torque meters (Snap-on tools has nice ones which I have used) but only looked at the newer cars because they couldn't find any older ones to test. DeGiorgio had asserted there was no change in the switch torque from the initial design, so I'm guessing they just ignored the junk car result. My guess is they could have looked for old cars at used car dealers or car auction lots for testing or even got hold of the Michigan state motor vehicle department to find owners of older Cobalts. GM should also have a database of Cobalt VINs connected to registered owners. And of course, the ultimate incompetence was that no connection was ever made that when an ignition switch moved from run to accessory mode the air bag sensors were disabled and would have solved the mystery of why air bags did not deploy during accidents when the switch was turned.

    This is a very interesting, fascinating and engrossing report and I encourage people to read it. I wonder if it might become required reading for discussion in engineering and law schools.
  • by hsmith (818216) on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:04PM (#47180251)
    Having worked in large organizations before, even surfacing problems to management in meetings the issues get ignored. Perhaps the guy wasn't smart enough to create a paper trail saying there was an issue. Seems like too nice a scape goat. Where is the QA? Anyone that designs makes mistakes, but the point is you have a team helping verify what you produce is up to spec. Telling me none of the other thousands of people involved in the vehicles didn't catch the issue either?
  • by guruevi (827432) <evi@smo k i n g c ube.be> on Friday June 06, 2014 @12:18PM (#47180381) Homepage

    a) There was no change management?
    b) A single engineer can replace a critical component without anyone ever needing to sign off?
    c) Not answering an e-mail does not make one culpable, it merely points to a time management problem or not enough time to respond
    d) Even when an e-mail did not get answered, nobody cared enough to follow up?

    These things point to serious managerial issues. Engineers can make mistakes, covering them up and pointing the finger is a managerial issue.

  • Any dog-and-pony show to protect the executives...

  • There are forum threads a hundred pages long covering the same faulty ignition switches in '99-'05 Impalas, yet the recall doesn't cover them why? GM waits until their customers are rendered into bloody piles of death before recalling a model. The bean counters make the decision.

  • by DomNF15 (1529309) on Friday June 06, 2014 @02:41PM (#47181797)
    What the media fails to mention is that nearly half of the fatalities related to this ignition switch problem also involved some combination of alcohol, drugs, and lack of seat belt use. Please see the latest issue of Car & Driver for more details, I just read the article last night. This is not meant to downplay the engineering/management mistakes that were made but simply to illustrate all the factors involved with the loss of life attributed to this mistake. I also own two Toyota's that only accelerate when I tell them to...
    • by Jahoda (2715225)
      Rather than down mod you I feel I should address how offensive I find your statement, Mr. Company Man. So, what? Because someone had a drink or didn't wear a seatbelt, this mitigates the actions of GM? The bottom line is that NONE of those people would have died in an ignition switch accident had the switch not been faulty. I'm not even going to address the ludicrous inanity of your "Also MY Toytas accelerate fine!!".
  • by dutchwhizzman (817898) on Friday June 06, 2014 @03:36PM (#47182243)

    The main fault is in almost all brands and models of cars that use an automatic gear box, but it's not an ignition switch. The main fault is the fact that cars become difficult to control when the engine stalls for whatever reason. Sure, that could be an ignition switch, but running out of fuel could be just as dangerous, a loose wire or any other minor defect could create the exact same circumstances.

    Instead of mandating rear view cameras, maybe a mandate that all cars should retain steering and braking capacity regardless of the engine running should be put in effect. Judging by the amount of people actually getting killed because of a flawed ignition switch, the effect would be a lot bigger than a silly camera would render.

An Ada exception is when a routine gets in trouble and says 'Beam me up, Scotty'.

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