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Young Owners of Low-Budget GM Cars Weren’t Worth Saving


Michael Moore compellingly writes in “The Price Of Human Life, According To GM”:

The executives at GM knew for 13 years that their cars had a defective ignition switch that would, well, kill people. But they did a "cost-benefit analysis" and concluded that paying off the deceased's relatives was going to be cheaper than having to install a $10 part per car. They then covered up their findings and continued to let millions drive around with the defective part in their cars.

There would be no recalls. There would only be parents and the decapitated body parts of their dead children. See the USA in your Chevrolet. In 2007 a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official recommended a formal investigation but was overruled by others in Bush's "business-friendly" Transportation Department.

Shannon Jones in “The GM ignition scandal and the case for public ownership” lays out the horrifying details. First, that GM admits that in 2001 it was aware of the ignition problems on the Saturn Ion model but approved production nevertheless. Soon after there were many customer complaints pouring in about the ignition of the Chevrolet Cobalt.

When the engineers at GM finally proposed a fix for the ignition in 2005 (four years later) management rejected it.

In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, a GM project engineering manager closed the defect investigation because “the tooling cost and piece price are too high.” He concluded that not one of the engineers’ proposals to fix the defect “represents an acceptable business case.”

Guess what their “affordable” workaround was? Are you ready for this? GM distributed a “service bulletin” to its dealers suggesting they tell customers to remove heavy items from their key rings.

According to Jones there was a malfunction in the ignition switch which could be accidentally jarred out of position causing the engine, power steering and power brakes to shut off and the airbag system to disable. The ignition defect could not only cause one to crash, but to crash without the benefit of an airbag.

Apparently GM recognized that the ignition defect easily could be triggered with the weight of a heavy keychain. Let’s face it, it could be triggered even without the heavy keychain. But that was their “buyer beware” helpful tip? Use a light keychain and you MAY not lose your engine, brakes, steering, airbag capacity .. and your life?

The cars involved in the “defect” scandal Jones reveals were low-cost bargain models. Many of the drivers were consequently young people.

2.6 million GM vehicles have been driven by people at risk of injury because of this defect. The vehicles involved, including the ones going back to 2001, are ONLY NOW being recalled! It is 2014!

On Monday, an unrelated defect from the original ignition one but which sabotages power steering has caused 1.3 million additional GM cars to be recalled.

Jones reveals that this crime against humanity was not just perpetrated by the GM industry but with the enabling of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Jones writes:

Internal documents indicate that both GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the supposed government watchdog, knew for years about fatal crashes involving GM vehicles in which airbags did not deploy and the ignition switch was in the “accessory” or “off” position. Both the company and the regulator concealed these facts from the public and failed to order a recall of the affected models.

Jones regards this amoral scenario as the “sacrifice of human life on the altar of corporate profit."

Their criminality continued to take ever more disgusting turns as more and more evidence of the dangerousness of the GM cars came to light:

In 2006, GM quietly ordered that a redesigned ignition switch be installed starting in the 2007 model year. However, it did not assign a new part number to the device, a “cardinal sin” according to one engineer quoted by Automotive News. The decision to use the same part number points again to a deliberate cover-up.

In March of 2007 the NHTSA and GM met to discuss a fatal crash that happened back in 2005 in which airbags did not deploy. Both of these organizations made the choice NOT to order a recall. The minutes of that meeting are not accessible to public scrutiny.

Jones elaborates on the mutual betrayal to the public by both corporate and government leadership:

The collusion of the NHTSA illustrates that the government functions as an arm of big business. There is an incestuous relationship between government regulators and those they supposedly regulate. In December 2013, to cite one example, NHTSA head David Strickland announced he was resigning from his post to take a job with a law firm that lobbies on behalf of the auto industry. The same corruption that was seen in the relation of regulators to BP in the Gulf oil spill and between bank regulators and Wall Street prevails in every sector of the economy.

In “General Motors CEO stonewalls House committee on ignition scandal” Shannon Jones continues on with the GM scandal story by reporting on the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing with General Motors CEO Mary Barra and David Friedman, the acting administrator of NHTSA.

Jones’s assessment:

The hearing dragged on for four hours with few penetrating questions asked and little new information revealed.

Committee members treated Barra with deference, despite her stonewalling. In her opening remarks to the committee, Barra, who was vice president of global engineering at GM in 2008-2009, denied having any knowledge until earlier this year of the ignition switch problem. She assumed the post of chief executive this past January.

Her statement, less than two pages in length, was perfunctory and vague.

She began by declaring, “Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that [small car] program…” At one point she flatly stated that GM would not make available to Congress the full findings of its internal investigation of the ignition defect.

No one on the House panel suggested that she be held in contempt of Congress or that she and other top GM executives be prosecuted on criminal charges for the cover-up. Instead, committee members again and again suggested that the problem was merely a lack of communication within the company.

Jones shares some important revelations from the hearing. Barra admitted that in 2002 GM approved an ignition switch that did not “meet its specifications” but she claimed she “had no idea why.” When she was asked about the redesigned switch that was approved years later in 2006 to be installed in 2008-10 models that still did not meet specifications a defensive Barra responded: “Just because a part doesn’t meet specifications doesn’t mean it is defective.”

When Barra was asked about the 2006 new ignition switch for the Cobalt and other GM models that was not assigned a new part number and how that suggested a COVER UP, she revealed that the GM engineer who authorized the change without the new numbering was still working for the company. The House was disinclined to explore further.

Jones goes on:

Committee members cited a chain of internal emails demonstrating that the company rejected a fix of the ignition problem due to cost considerations. In one of the emails, an engineer wrote: “I was aware of an issue with ‘inadvertent ignition offs.’” However, he said, the new part would cost 90 cents while warranty costs came to only 10 or 15 cents, so the fix would have to wait another year.

One committee member pointed to a 2005 article in the New York Times reviewing the Cobalt which noted that the car suddenly went dead while being driven. At the time, a GM spokesperson said he didn’t think it was a big issue because the car was still “controllable.” Barra claimed she did not recollect the Times article.

She made much of the fact that GM has retained attorney Kenneth Feinberg as a consultant on compensation for accident victims and their families. Feinberg, a corporate lawyer, was chosen by the Bush administration to oversee compensation for victims of the 9/11 attacks. He was subsequently appointed by the Obama administration to oversee compensation to victims of the BP oil spill. In both posts he was ruthless in limiting payouts, helping BP to save billions of dollars in damage claims. In between these jobs for the ruling class he served as the so-called “pay tsar” for the government bank bailout program, enabling Wall Street executives to continue awarding themselves seven- and eight-figure compensation packages.

Finally, the House committee interviewed David Friedman. Jones:

In his appearance before the committee, NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman sought to deflect all blame onto General Motors, claiming it withheld vital information without which the agency could not launch a full investigation. He defended the decision of NHTSA not to order a recall of GM vehicles with defective ignitions, claiming the cases were too complex and involved for the agency to make a proper determination.

He made this claim despite the fact that NHTSA investigators were aware by 2007 of hundreds of customer complaints about unexpected stalling and the agency had discovered a pattern with the Cobalt and other vehicles in which airbags failed to deploy and the ignition was in the “accessory” position.

Finally, another very troubling revelation from Shannon Jones and one that should but probably won't be echoed in corporate mainstream media is the Obama administration’s involvement in this crime.

The Obama administration is itself deeply implicated in the cover-up. After the 2009 bankruptcy and restructuring of GM, the US government was the majority shareholder in the company until November 2010 and only recently sold off its remaining stake. The White House inserted a clause holding GM harmless from product liability lawsuits stemming from before July 2009 at a time when GM management was aware of fatal accidents involving defective ignition switches.

Yes, the profoundly corrupt Bush administration failed in its regulatory responsibilities. But once again, the Democratic Obama administration has given a serious pass to corporate perpetrators of a crime against humanity. In this case, negligent homicide.

Obama and the bank bail out scandal. Obama and the BP scandal. Obama and the GM scandal. The list of disgusting examples of Obama as protector of the corporate profiteering criminal elite continues to grow.

Too bad the Obama kool aid continues to work so very effectively with too many Americans. Even Michael Moore is optimistic at the end of his article about faux-integrous mom Ms. Barra and an Obama administration that he hopes seriously will prosecute these sociopathic economic bottom-liners.

As for the Congresspeople performing for their tv sound bites, they slide on the unhappy, scolding masks while the cameras are on to try to convince the American public how much they care about its safety and general welfare. Hah! The avalanche of lobbied money the corporatists provide them discourages any serious calls for justice.

One more round of Lucy and the football with the morally bankrupt rich and powerful: the CORPORATISTS, the CORPORATE parties' pols and a CORPORATE mainstream media.

[cross-posted on open salon and apparently banned by daily kos]

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Submitted by lambert on

All the traps one can, all unwilling, step into. Who would know that putting a heavy object on a keychain could kill you?

Also, if you read about the part at issue in the keychain, it's another example of crapification. The style of engineering that went into that part is the same as engineering washing machines so they break down in two or three year, because every component is as light and cheap as possible; there's no redundancy because everything is optimized for profit. If you can save a penny by shaving material off, you do it.

So some MBA drove the decision making process here, and that's worse than the engineering that was done.

Also, the redesigned, more rugged part had the same part number as the part that failed, even though the design was different. Somehow I don't think that happened only once, and that means that GM's parts database is totally corrupt; it has no correspondence with real world parts any more. Ick.

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...another American POS (piece of shit) until 1986. I should have known better; and learned my lesson for good. In 51 years of driving, I've driven an American car a total of 3-1/2 years. The '53 for 3 years and the 1986 Chevy for less than a year, total garbage.
Apparently nothing has changed in all those years; why am I not surprised?

mellon's picture
Submitted by mellon on

These kinds of things happen all the time. What kind of thinking goes into a decision by the Bush and Obama regimes to try to push drug prices higher around the world- even though that has disastrous effects on families all around the world, including in the US, and destroys whatever shreds of misplaced trust Americans had when they find out that the administration pretends to be for affordable healthcare but isn't.

transcriber's picture
Submitted by transcriber on

This just ... hurts.

My 1995 Saturn wagon is an amazingly great car. I am so lucky. It's got almost 400,000 miles and keeps going, knock on plastic, gets around 35 mpg, I still feel I'm the prettiest car wherever I go, and I even remember my Saturn salesman Bob in Vancouver with huge fondness and gratitude. (Who had a good time buying their car? I raise my hand.) It's just been a beautiful, magical car.

Saturn started out with such great hopes to be a different kind of American-built car, better. Idealism, enthusiasm, different business practices, no-dicker stickers, customer respect, environmentally conscious. The first ones were built in the early 1990s. Saturn used to have yearly homecoming fests where Saturn owners from across America met back in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where the cars were built. I don't know what happened when they got there, cooked out and hugged each other and smiled a lot probably.

When California law required car companies to produce a certain percentage of zero-emission cars, GM put electric vehicle EV-1s on the market, and Saturn dealerships were where you went to see one, get one. You had to lease, couldn't buy. I feel lucky now that I saw one, and I saw it because of Saturn.

Things changed. Though the EV-1 "owners" loved their cars and wanted to keep them, GM worked to get the law changed and called back all the EV-1s and shredded them. (See Who Killed The Electric Car?, the documentary made by EV-1 lovers. Watch the CARB vote section to see democracy fail.) Because money. GM could make more money on Hummers. Especially when the $100,000 tax break per 6,000-pound vehicle purchase meant a huge federal subsidy.

A few years later when the car companies needed bailing out, I remember reading a HuffPo piece by the son of one of the Saturn execs describing how GM had sucked the life out of Saturn. Though GM got bailed out, Saturn died in 2010.

When we start doing GM's death count now, I put Iraq War deaths in the tally. Cars don't have to, and didn't have to then, run on oil. We could have stayed the zero-emissions course. But the Bush administration play heavy roles (for example) in Who Killed The Electric Car.

Remember the (1993) Chevron oil tanker named Condoleezza Rice? (comment here says sister ship was George Shultz; both since renamed.)

Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card was a former GM VP and chief lobbyist and had also been president and CEO of American Automobile Manufacturers Association when it was campaigning in the '90s to kill California's zero-emission mandate. The Bush administration joined GM's lawsuit against California.

An efficient battery was being developed to make the EVs more practical, and when the electric vehicles were killed (not just by GM, but Ford and Honda), the battery technology was sold to an oil company to hide in a closet. We buy what we are allowed to buy.

Wally E. Rippel, Research Engineer, AeroVironment: There’s still roughly a trillion barrels worth of oil in the earth’s crust. That’s 100 trillion dollars of business yet to be done.
- Who killed the electric car?
- Lack of corporate wisdom.
- In my opinion, it’s Big Oil.
- The murder was committed by the General Motors Company.

When I read about these GM hearings now, I remember the CARB hearing. That's how it's done.

Because money.