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GM engineer concealed design change, documents show

By Angela Greiling Keane, Keith Naughton and Jeff Plungis
Bloomberg News

General Motors struggled to accept a fatal flaw in ignition switches in 2.59 million cars that it is recalling and an engineer took steps to conceal a critical design change, internal company documents show. The papers were released by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

GM found no pattern of problems with air bags failing to deploy in Chevrolet Cobalt models now being recalled to replace the switch linked to 13 deaths, U.S. safety regulators said in a 2007 document.

Ray DeGiorgio, an engineer GM put on paid leave this week, approved a redesign in 2006 to the faulty ignition switch in the Cobalt, Saturn Ion and other small cars. He “agreed to implement change without changing GM” part number, according to a May 27, 2006, correspondence from supplier Delphi Automotive Plc released by House investigators.

Congress, federal regulators and the U.S. Justice Department are all investigating why it took GM more than a decade to recall cars with faulty ignition switches that allowed the key to fall out of the “on” position, shutting off the engine and disabling air bags.

GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, who has said GM failed to act quickly enough, suspended DeGiorgio and Gary Altman, chief engineer of the Cobalt.

“Documents show individuals at GM allowed vehicles with safety concerns to remain on the road for almost a decade, resulting in at least 13 fatalities,” said Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican on the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, in a news release. “We will continue our investigation into what went wrong because it’s the only way public trust can be restored for both GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.”

NHTSA, the U.S. auto-safety regulator, first asked GM in 2007 about problems with the ignition switch that was finally recalled in February, according to the documents. By the middle of last year, tension was growing between NHTSA and GM regarding other safety investigations.

“The general perception is that GM is slow to communicate, slow to act, and, at times, requires additional effort of ODI that we do not feel is necessary with some of your peers,” wrote Frank Borris, head of NHTSA Office of Defect Investigation, in a note to GM’s director of product investigations in July 2013, complaining of the automaker’s inconsistency and lack of coordination on recalls.

Separate documents show GM said in 2007 it saw no problems with patterns of nonworking air bags noted by regulators in 2005 and 2007, and that DeGiorgio suggested in 2012 that the ignition switches be replaced only if customers brought their cars into dealerships.

A Delphi memo from June 2005 suggests DeGiorgio was seeking tests on ignition switches.

“Ray is requesting this information,” wrote Jack Coniff, a senior project engineer at Delphi. “Cobalt is blowing up in their face in regards to turning the car off with the driver’s knee.”

Altman, the Cobalt manager suspended this week, rejected a fix proposed for the ignition switch because it was too expensive and would take too long, previously released documents indicated.

GM shares fell 4.1 percent to $31.93 at the close Friday in New York. The stock has dropped 22 percent this year. The document release follows a pair of congressional hearings looking at the GM recalls that have included testimony from Barra.

GM is replacing ignition-lock cylinders on 2.2 million older small cars it recalled in the United States for defects that can cause them to slip out of the run position.


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