March 30, 2014 at 11:13 pm

Panel: NHTSA, GM missed red flags

NHTSA opted not to open formal investigation as early as 2007

Washington — Federal safety regulators declined to open a formal probe in 2007 into hundreds of thousands of now-recalled General Motors cars even when a senior official notified superiors there were at least four fatal crashes linked to air-bag failures.

A report released Sunday by a House panel investigating the timeliness of GM’s recall suggests this was one of several warning signs missed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Records reviewed by the panel show the safety agency again opted not to investigate the issue in 2010 after reviewing a report about a fatal crash involving a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. Another document obtained by the committee shows GM decided not to redesign the faulty ignition switch at the heart of the problem — partly because it would cost too much.

The 235,000 pages of records turned over by GM and NHTSA to Congress about the handling of crashes and complaints leading to the recall of 2.6 million vehicles tied to ignition switch defects raise serious questions, a House committee said.

They show both GM and NHTSA failed to heed warning signs that could have prevented deaths. At least 13 deaths have been linked to the recalled cars.

The automaker and safety agency almost certainly will face tough questioning during two days of hearings before Congress this week.

“Although we have had the documents for less than a week, they paint an unsettling picture,” said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., who will chair the House Energy and Commerce panel questioning GM CEO Mary Barra and acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman on Tuesday.

The records show GM approved an ignition switch in 2002 built by Delphi Corp. that turned too easily, and even the revised one approved in 2006 didn’t meet its specifications.

The weak switch can allow the key to turn off the engine, disabling power steering and air bags. GM says air bags have failed to inflate in at least 31 front-end crashes because of that.

Despite more than a decade of complaints, GM didn’t begin recalling the cars until February, and NHTSA never opened a formal investigation.

On Friday, GM expanded its recall to 2.59 million Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other similar cars — up from 1.62 million — to make sure that newer cars didn’t get faulty switches as replacement parts. It also recalled nearly 700,000 other cars and trucks worldwide for fire concerns and other problems.

Probe considered in '07

NHTSA, which steadfastly has said there wasn’t enough evidence to support a trend, had considered a formal investigation in late 2007 — a fact not previously disclosed.

The chief of NHTSA’s defects assessment division proposed an investigation of front air bag non-deployment in 2003-06 Cobalts and Ions, and said the agency had seen a pattern of problems not found in similar vehicles. GM’s recall announced in February — more than six years after NHTSA chose not to investigate — includes the 2005-07 Cobalt and 2003-07 Ion.

A PowerPoint presentation prepared by NHTSA in November 2007 said its review was prompted by four fatal crashes, 29 complaints and 14 field reports. “During a briefing with committee staff, [Office of Defects Investigation] officials explained that the panel did not identify any discernible trend and decided not to pursue a more formal investigation,” the committee said.

The committee said among the questions it wants answered: “In 2007 and 2010, why did NHTSA determine there was not a safety defect trend for air bag non-deployment in Chevrolet Cobalts in 2007?”

NHTSA didn’t explain Sunday why the investigator’s presentation didn’t prompt an investigation.

“As we have stated previously, the agency reviewed data from a number of sources in 2007, but the data we had available at the time did not warrant a formal investigation,” the agency said in a statement. “Recent data presented by GM provides new information and evidence directly linking the ignition switch to the air bag non-deployment. That’s why we are aggressively investigating the timing of GM’s recall.”

Troubled part OK'd in '02

A GM document released to the committee shines light on GM’s decision to close an internal investigation into stalling problems in a Cobalt that was opened in 2004. Reasons cited for lack of action were “tooling cost and piece price are too high,” “lead-time for all solutions is too long” and “[n]one of the solutions seems to fully countermeasure the possibility of the key being turned (ignition turned off) during driving.”

The GM document added that “none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.” The committee said GM hasn’t released documents that explain the criteria for an “acceptable business case” and how the decision was made.

The troubled part never met GM’s original specifications — it turned too easily — yet it was approved in 2002, GM’s supplier told the committee.

The committee said that in February 2002 that Delphi, GM’s ignition switch supplier for the recalled vehicles, submitted a production approval document for the switch. “During a briefing, Delphi officials told committee staff that GM approved the (production part approval process) even though sample testing of the ignition switch torque was below the original specifications set by GM,” the committee said.

In April 2006, a GM engineer responsible for the ignition switch in the recalled vehicles signed a form that authorized Delphi to make changes. The new switch had a “plunger” to make it harder for the switch to slip out of place.

According to Delphi officials who talked to the committee, sample testing prior to approval “suggested a significant increase in torque performance, but the values were still below GM’s original specifications.” The modified parts began appearing in 2007 model-year vehicles, but GM never changed the part number, a highly unusual move. As a result, GM recalled all of the 2007 models because it couldn’t tell which ones had the revised parts.

The committee wants to know why GM approved ignition switches that did not meet its specifications.

GM spokesman Greg Martin didn’t directly comment on GM’s approval process, but noted the automaker and its CEO have repeatedly vowed to get to the bottom of what went wrong and are fully cooperating with Congress.

A Delphi spokeswoman had no comment Sunday.

“Lives are at stake, and we will follow the facts where they take us as we work to pinpoint where the system failed,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who is head of the panel. He said, “We now know the problems persisted over a decade, the red flags were many, and yet those responsible failed to connect the dots.”

dshepardson@detroitnews.com