First we need to look at 2002, when the supplier of the faulty ignition switch, Michigan-based Delphi, told GM that their switches were not up to company specifications. Despite the warning, GM still accepted the switches. (During the GM hearing last week, GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra said there was a difference between being up to code versus being faulty. We’ll offer that the jury’s still out on that one.) (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/31/business/us-regulators-declined-full-inquiry-into-gm-ignition-flaws-memo-shows.html)
The problem was a 57-cent (according to testimony from House Democrat Diana DeGette) part inside the ignition switch, a tiny, half-inch, part that has since been associate with a GM vehicles recall in the millions, at least 13 deaths and perhaps hundreds of car wrecks. (http://money.cnn.com/2014/04/02/news/companies/gm-recall-part/)
The part has a name. It’s called the “switch indent plunger” and it’s job is to provide enough pressure — or, in car language, “torque” — to keep the ignition from turning off. The reason being that, should the ignition accidentally turn off while the car is running, then the airbags, anti-lock brakes and power steering will all be disabled — something nobody wants to happen.
When Delphi told GM that their parts were not up to company specifications, what they meant was that the plunger did not have enough torque to meet GM’s specifications by ensuring that the ignition would not turn off while the car was running. GM accepted the parts, according to both Delphi and GM CEO Barra during her testimony last week, knowing full well that the plunger did not have enough power.
So GM car owners drove their cars with a not-up-to-specifications part for four years, until 2006, before GM made moves to address the situation. Here’s what they did in 2006: they increased the part’s size by 1.6 millimeters. And that may have fixed the problem. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/29/business/a-florida-engineer-unlocked-the-mystery-of-gms-ignition-flaw.html)
But GM did not hold a recall in order to fix all of the cars already on the road until 2014, even though they had the part that could have saved lives designed and ready.
GM also never changed the part number. And, let alone with the public or the proper authorities, the part change was not even shared in the way that it should have been internally. (http://money.cnn.com/2014/04/02/news/companies/gm-recall-part/)
Instead, the company was hyper-secretive, intent on covering up the mistake of accepting parts that they shouldn’t have.
And it all comes down to a tiny part. A part that could have been replaced, too. In 2005 GM even considered it, but then it turned out that changing the part would cost GM less than a dollar per car.
GM decided the price was too high. Because, while fixing the switch could cost 90 cents, it would only save about 10 to 15 cents per switch in warranty costs to the company. Meaning there was not a “business case” for the change, according to an email mentioned during the GM hearing. (http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/live-updates-from-house-hearing-on-g-m-defects/)