GM scrambled to get new ignition switches 2 months before recall. Why the delay?

General Motors scrambled to secure repair parts in the months leading up to the ignition switch recall announcement this past spring -- months during which the company could've alerted owners of the problem. GM's  internal, highly bureaucratic structure is largely to blame. 

John F. Martin/General Motors/Reuters/File
An employee holds General Motors ignition assembly parts, including the parts affected under the automaker's recalls. It took GM two months before ordering new parts to announce the recall, a new report says.

If we've learned nothing else from the investigation of General Motors' botched handling of its massive -- and massively delayed -- ignition switch recall, we've learned that the automaker's internal, highly bureaucratic structure is largely to blame. 

Now, according to Detroit News, we've also learned that GM scrambled to secure repair parts in the months leading up to the recall announcement -- months during which the company could've alerted owners of the ignition switch problem. During the delay, lawyers for plaintiffs allege that new accidents and deaths occurred because of the faulty switches.

The news comes from a recently revealed email exchange between GM and parts supplier Delphi. The entire 36-page exchange (posted by Detroit News at the link above) makes for a fascinating read -- and at times, a disturbing one:

  • The conversation begins on December 18, 2013, as GM's Sarah Missentzis reaches out to Delphi's Lisa Augustine, asking about the possibility of getting Delphi to produce 500,000 replacement ignition switches as soon as possible.
  • GM wants the switches for a "field action", which is essentially internal speak for a recall.
  • Augustine responds with a bit of surprise, pointing out that in the previous year, Delphi provided GM with just 11,445 of the devices. Asking for 500,000 on the fly would be a "huge increase in production".
  • Delphi has some internal discussion about production, pointing out that, at $5.17 per switch, the order has the potential to generate some $2.6 million in revenue. However, Delphi seems to know nothing about the deadly nature of the ignition switch problem.
  • The emails stop for the holiday break, then resume on January 7, when we find out that the "field action" is focused on the Chevrolet Cobalt and other models from 2005-2007.
  • There's another lag in the conversation, during which Missentzis' tone gets a bit desperate:

I left you another message.

Please get back with me today with your ship plan. Please understand that we have to be able to provide timing and see what we can do to improve it. Delphi was notified of this urgent issue before Christmas and I have yet to see a plan.

Please get me something by 4 PM today!!

  • On January 21, 2014, Delphi confirms that it can produce up to 30,000 units a week, but it will cost GM in overtime.
  • Complicating matters is the Chinese New Year holiday, which has the potential to slow production because a crucial circuit board for the switch is produced there.
  • A production schedule from Delphi isn't confirmed until the 10th of February.
  • On February 5, 2014, GM's Christine Witt asks Delphi's Susan Dowling for a history of the ignition switch, which GM calls "PN 10392423". As Witt points out, the switch stopped shipping in 2006, then relaunched in 2009 with the same part number. Witt's confusion stems from some damning evidence that has subsequently been revealed: GM improved the ignition switch design, but never changed the part number.
  • Finally, on February 13, Witt lays out everything in writing. Her tone is more formal, more resigned than in previous emails. She knows what's coming: 

This "Safety" issue was reported to NHTSA today. GM now has 60 days to notify all involved vehicle owners. This takes us to around April 8 (when we will only have about 50,000 pcs from Delphi) There are a total of 778,562 involved VINS.

I have shared your shipping plan with my management, and as a result we will plan to begin notifying vehicle owners in early April. The adherence to the shipping schedule by Delphi will be crucial to ensure part availability.

If there is anything more that can be done to expedite the flow of parts from Delphi to [GM], please advise where we can assist.

The following day, the shirt hit the flan. Switchgate has been unraveling ever since. As of today, GM's ignition switch problems have been linked to 32 deaths and 31 injuries.


Some have characterized this two-month-long email exchange as callous, insisting that it shows GM's blatant disregard for the safety of its customers.

To that, we'd say: yes and no.

We're reluctant to cast that kind of judgment on the people writing these emails, because they're weren't the folks directly in charge of recalls. As you might expect in a highly bureaucratic organization like GM, Missentzis and Witt were trying to fast-track a fix for the problem -- a problem that should've been fixed 13 years ago, but a problem nonetheless. They were doing what most of us have tried to do in our working lives: they were trying to make their bosses happy.

Those bosses, on the other hand, deserve a great deal more contempt. As attorney Bob Hilliard -- one of three lawyers for plaintiffs in the GM class action suit -- points out in a statement, GM could've easily issued a notice to owners, urging them to remove their ignition keys from key rings and take other measures to prevent switches from suddenly turning off.

Perhaps those higher-ups waited to reveal anything to the public in an effort to avoid panic. Perhaps they wanted to be able to say to owners, "We have parts in stock, we can make repairs today." We may never know.

What we do know -- or at least, what Hilliard alleges -- is that in the two months it took GM to secure the necessary recall parts, 85 accidents took place, and one person died because of problems linked to a $5.17 ignition switch. 

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