April 9, 2014 at 11:27 pm

GM seeks NASA help in recall review

General Motors Co. has asked a special team at NASA to review whether 2.6 million recalled GM cars are safe to drive with only an ignition key, two people briefed on the matter said Wednesday.

At the Detroit automaker’s request, Ralph R. Roe Jr., who is director of the NASA Engineering & Safety Center, is expected to lead an independent outside review of GM’s recall of cars linked to at least 13 deaths.

The review, which is expected to start soon, comes amid questions raised by members of Congress and safety advocates about whether the Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other similar cars are safe to drive before repairs.

GM says its own testing shows they are safe when only the weight of a single key is in the faulty ignition switch; heavy key chains can push the key to the “off” or “accessory” mode, which kills the engine and disables power steering and air bags. A lawyer has asked a federal judge in Texas to order GM to tell owners of all the recalled cars to stop driving until repairs are made.

NASA is expected to evaluate and analyze the work GM has done to ensure that the recalled vehicles are safe to drive. The NASA team also is expected to conduct a broader review of GM’s overall approach to safety issues. GM has appointed a new vice president of global safety, Jeff Boyer, who has been given wide authority to make faster decisions on whether recalls are necessary. Since being appointed, Boyer helped speed several recent recalls.

GM declined to confirm the space agency’s appointment, and NASA didn’t respond to a request for comment late Wednesday seeking confirmation. A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is investigating GM’s recall and whether it was done in a timely fashion, also declined to comment.

“We will not comment specifically on NASA,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said. “I will say what we have in the past, that we will draw upon an array of outside expertise to help guide us during this time.”

NASA has assisted in auto safety investigations in the past.

In 2010, the Transportation Department asked the space agency to investigate whether electronic defects were to blame for sudden acceleration problems in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles. NASA and the NHTSA spent 10 months reviewing the issue, tapping NASA engineers with expertise in areas such as computer-controlled electronic systems, electromagnetic interference and software integrity to research whether electronic systems or electromagnetic interference played a role in incidents of unintended acceleration.

NASA engineers found no electronic flaws in Toyota vehicles capable of opening the throttle wide enough to cause dangerous high-speed unintended acceleration.

“We enlisted the best and brightest engineers to study Toyota’s electronics systems, and the verdict is in. There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas,” said then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

At the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, NASA hardware and systems engineers examined and tested mechanical components of Toyota vehicles that could result in an unwanted throttle opening. At a Chrysler Group LLC facility in Michigan, NHTSA and NASA engineers bombarded vehicles with electromagnetic radiation to study whether it could cause malfunctions.

NHTSA engineers and researchers also tested Toyotas at NHTSA’s Vehicle Research and Test Center in East Liberty, Ohio, to determine whether there were any additional mechanical causes for unintended acceleration and whether any of the test scenarios developed during the NHTSA-NASA investigation could actually occur in real-world conditions.

“NASA found no evidence that a malfunction in electronics caused large, unintended accelerations,” said Michael Kirsch, principal engineer at the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, in February 2011.

Roe has directed the NASA Engineering & Safety Center since it was created 2003. The center performs “independent, in-depth technical reviews of NASA’s most difficult problems and challenges,” according to a NASA website.

This week, GM began getting parts to dealers to begin the recall, but the automaker says it may take until October or longer to build enough parts to repair all of them. Questions about the timeliness of recall — which has become the automaker’s biggest crisis in years — stem from GM’s failure to recall the cars for more than decade after learning of ignition switch problems in a 2001 pre-production Saturn Ion.

Separately, the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported that government investigators are about to begin interviews in the criminal probe being led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York. The Detroit News previously confirmed a criminal investigation is underway.

A person briefed on the matter said GM has been cooperating extensively with the probe, and said it is expected the government will seek to interview senior officials at the automaker. Some of those officials have been working to retain lawyers.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com