June 18, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Upton: GM employee alerted company of ignition switch troubles in 2006 Impala

A General Motors Co. employee in 2005 alerted the automaker of what she considered a serious safety issue related to an ignition switch problem in a 2006 Chevrolet Impala — a car that GM just recalled on Monday.

Laura Andres notified GM in 2005 that a 2006 Chevrolet Impala shut off while she was driving about 45 miles per hour, according to an email read by Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, during the House subcommittee hearing on GM’s recall. She sent the complaint through a number of channels; an email exchange titled “Hot Alert for the 2006 Chevy Impala Special” eventually made its way to Ray DeGiorgio, who designed the ignition switch linked to a separate recall of 2.59 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars linked to 13 deaths and 54 crashes.

“I think this is a serious safety problem, especially if this switch is on multiple programs,” Andres wrote in an October 2005 email read by Upton. “I’m thinking big recall. I was driving 45 mph when I hit the pothole and the car shut off and I had a car driving behind me that swerved around me. I don’t like to imagine a customer driving with their kids in the back seat, on I-75 and hitting a pothole, in rush-hour traffic. I think you should seriously consider changing this part to a switch with a stronger detent.”

Upton said the Monday recall “makes it painfully clear this is not just a Cobalt problem.” He said the ignition switch problems can have fatal consequences, including two teens from his own region who died following a 2008 crash in a 2006 Cobalt near St. Joseph. Joey Harding and Zachary Schoenbach, two west Michigan teens, are believed to be among the 13 victims GM says are linked to the defective ignition switch.

Andres took the car to a GM technician who mentioned similar shut-offs occurring in tests of the Pontiac Solstice. In correspondence released Wednesday, DeGiorgio told Andres in an email that the switch used on the Impala and the Pontiac Solstice were different, and that when he drove a 2006 Impala he did not experience the issue she had.

GM recalled nearly 3.4 million cars including the 2006 Chevrolet Impala and other vehicles on Monday for ignition switch problems linked to eight crashes and six injuries.

GM confirmed Monday that the ignition switch in those vehicles was designed by DeGiorgio. He was among the 15 employees GM dismissed after completion of its internal investigation led by former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas.

“To reiterate, nearly nine years ago, a GM employee suggested the stalling of a ’06 Impala was a serious safety problem and speculated that a ‘big recall’ was coming,” Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee said during the hearing. “So when was the recall for the ’06 Impala announced?”

“Two days ago, Monday,” Upton said, answering his own question.

Mary Barra, GM CEO, said the company now considers engine stalls a safety issue and that when a stalling issue is brought forward and GM learns it is related to a defect in the vehicle, GM “will immediately take action.”

“And that’s represented in what we did Monday,” Barra said.

On Wednesday, GM confirmed Andres still works for the Detroit automaker. Spokesman Jim Cain would not confirm what her position was in 2005.

“We encourage our employees to speak up for safety, and an issue like the one described in the memo is something that today we would respond to immediately,” Cain said in a statement.

Barra said GM now takes stalling much more seriously — but as recently as 2004 it told NHTSA that it didn’t view stalling as a safety issue. GM now takes all stalling seriously except for people running out of gas.

mburden@detroitnews.com