There was a thing my dad used to say before the spankings commenced: “You’re not being spanked for what you did [wrote my name all over the garage wall, wrote my name all over the inside of my brother’s closet, wrote my name…]. You are being spanked for lying about it.” How did he know I was lying? My brother Paul would always confess to my crime, hoping to spare me. As if. If only it were that easy for General Motors these days.
So far, no one has publicly confessed to being the one who decided to replace a faulty ignition switch—one that could turn off while the car was in motion, making power steering and power brakes useless and shutting off the airbags—without notifying the feds of the problem or giving the redesigned ignition switch a new part number, which would have indicated a problem and triggered a recall. Someone was either a) covering ass or b) trying to avoid that recall.
Recalls are a messy reality in the industry. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, there are 10,000 moving parts in the average car. With about 16 million vehicles made in North America each year, you can expect a few problems. When a recall happens—initiated by the manufacturer or ordered by the government—the problem isn’t only that there is a problem. It’s: when did you find out, how bad is the problem, and how are you going to fix it?
According to federal law, a carmaker has five business days to notify the government once it determines there is a defect. This is why General Motors is facing big, big trouble: GM knew about the faulty ignition switches. The company said its engineers discovered problems as early as 2001, but executives didn’t order a recall until 2014. So, who knew about it? Well, the guy who signed off on the redesigned ignition switch in 2006 without properly notifying the government or properly assigning it a new part number, who then lied about his knowledge in a deposition and was exposed and suspended. But he’s the tip of the iceberg. Massive teams of investigative reporters are trying to fit those puzzle pieces together.
How bad is the General Motors ignition switch recall? The safety watchdog group Center for Auto Safety (CAS) said in March that it believed “303 people had died when airbags failed to deploy in the recalled GM cars.” GM denounced the CAS report for using raw data without “rigorous analysis” and called the findings pure speculation. CAS director Clarence Ditlow since adjusted the number down to “at least fifty.” GM believes the number is thirteen lives lost in some forty-seven crashes related to the faulty ignition switch. In response to a query from Reuters, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said, “The final death toll associated with this safety defect is not known to NHTSA, but we believe it’s likely that more than 13 lives were lost.”
Given the sheer numbers—2.6 million vehicles worldwide, including every Cobalt, Ion, and HHR—it will also be no surprise if the number of fatalities (and lawsuits) multiplies exponentially.
Thinking about it makes me ill. We automotive journalists are not automotive engineers. We don’t design or build cars. We drive them, we race them, we have adventures in them, and, for the most part, we love them. Often, we love them despite their character flaws. We rejoice every time our friends in the industry get it right. The new Corvette? Best ever. The Chevy Impala? Wow. We raved.
Since the ignition switch recall debacle began, we have been bombarded with near-daily press releases extolling General Motors’ wins, its triumphs, its greenness, its charitable nature. (Among many kind acts, GM gave to the Detroit chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, of which I am a board member.) Yes, GM has many great qualities, many wonderful people, and all that good stuff the wash of press releases wants to remind us to remind everyone about. But what does the public really want to hear from GM? They want to know what you are going to do about the people who made decisions—or not—about all those cars with bad switches.
Like Toyota before you, the cone of silence is deafening. The whole world is waiting to hear more from you, not from the great, unwashed punditocracy littering the cable-news airwaves. We want you to stop the Old GM versus New GM legalese and semantic bullshit and step up to your responsibility.
We want you to have a town hall with America. Bring your kitchen cabinet to the national airwaves. You know, all the guys from “Old” GM who have been through the war and would like to just get on with the business of building great cars. I would suggest Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey for your moderator. Just pick someone America trusts.
You are General Motors. Man up, woman up. Listen to your heart and show us the mettle that has brought you back this far.