Dr. David Cole is the Chairman of AutoHarvest (autoharvest.org), a web based tool to accelerate innovation in the auto industry. Dr. Cole is Chairman Emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research and a former Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan where he taught courses related to the automotive field for over 25 years. He is a fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Engineering Society of Detroit and Society of Manufacturing Engineers and was recently elected to the Automotive Hall of Fame.
The past few weeks have been most interesting with regard to GM and the ignition switch problems with a number of their early 2000’s compact cars including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion. The past few days have been particularly interesting with GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra and her testimony in both the US House and Senate. Her testimony and grilling offered a feeding frenzy opportunity for our media. Of course the story has been building for the past few months when it was discovered that there were few incidences of the failure of an extremely small number of ignition switches where the ignition would cut out with a jostling or bumping on the key ring, particularly if it were heavily loaded with other keys and things normally found on key rings.
There is no question that there is fault with GM and also with the National Highway Traffic Administration, NHTSA, in failing to find the problem quickly and execute a re-call of the impacted vehicles. However there is much more to the story that few people seem to understand. If it were easy to identify the problem and its root cause, the story would have ended many years ago.
I was particularly struck by the Senate grilling of Mary. Several Senators aggressively attacked Mary and GM on the possibility of a cover-up. Several female senators who were also ex-prosecutors led the attack. My guess is they know as much about the complexity of auto manufacturing as they know about heart surgery. The truth is that every leader in the auto industry knows that if you have a problem, the absolutely worst thing is to attempt a cover-up and in this case there was and is no cover-up. Certainly mistakes were made and individuals at lower levels of the company may have tried to hide something, but no one in a position of company leadership in an auto company would consider this.
When you look at the history of this particular story, it is clear that GM made mistakes. They had seen some failure incidences that led to a minute redesign of a simple part by adding about a millimeter to its length. It appeared to have not been given a new part number. Still the story is very complex and certainly not complete. The serious crashes are very infrequent and there are real questions about the failures and their root cause. For example one tragic accident involved a young girl who was visibly upset leaving a party, and drove her Cobalt into a tree at about 75 mph. She had not fastened the seat belt and the airbag didn’t deploy. Unfortunately in this kind of accident, death is to be expected. To blame her death uniquely on an uninflated air-bag is grasping for straws. Still the air-bag should have worked.
Another question once an accident occurs is to determine the root cause; to discover the story of what happened. In this case the failure of the air-bag to deploy could be a faulty air-bag, a broken wire, failed chemical or whatever and to get to the root cause requires a detailed analysis of a destroyed vehicle.
Some of the toughest accident analyses, often very tragic ones, are those whose incidence is very infrequent as which the case with the GM problem. Our data mining abilities today are very good but the best tools are relatively new and were not available a few years ago. Remember that the serious accidents were at the frequency of about 1 in a 100,000 and were dispersed across the country. Other accidents, many serious, occurred at a much higher frequency. Until you really know the details, it is very difficult to take action.
Another likely factor of importance in this saga is the trauma that GM, Chrysler and, for that matter, the entire industry experienced during the “Great Recession” which really was a Depression in the auto industry where US sales fell by about 4 million units below what we had anticipated in a normal recession. In the traditional domestic manufacturers, numerous facilities were closed and thousands of people let go in a very short period of time. Chaos prevailed.
We saw a similar problem a number of years ago with the infamous Ford Explorer/Firestone, rare but very serious crashes. A reporter actually heard about several serious accidents and began to put the story together. In this case Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires were involved in a certain type of serious accidents. Now that there was evidence of a common problem; what caused it? As it turned out drivers with heavily loaded Explorers with rear tire pressure significantly below recommended levels could have had a problem (note today’s vehicles are all equipped with tire pressure sensors that give the driver a warning if tire pressure falls below specified levels). In an emergency maneuver the vehicle could experience over steer performance rather than the under steer of normal vehicles. What this means is that with a sudden steer input (avoiding an obstacle or another vehicle) the rear end of the vehicle could start coming around the front. An inexperienced driver would try to correct by steering away from the skid which could initiate a “spin-out”. If a rear tire/wheel impacted a curb or shoulder, roll-over might occur with often tragic consequences. It literally took years to get to the root cause of this rare but tragic situation.
One of the unfortunate issues that the auto industry has to deal with is a population that thinks that because they drive, they understand the auto industry. In truth this is the most complex industry in the world and the modern car is extraordinarily complex but to the average driver, this complexity is mostly invisible. We saw this to some extent with the federal government task force that came to work with Detroit during the “Great Recession”. They had little expertise other than in labor and finance and, to some extent, felt that since they drove cars, they understood the industry. They found out rather quickly that the auto industry is extremely complex.
We don’t know how the GM ignition switch story will end and what the ultimate results will be. Certainly the industry as a whole will learn a great deal as will NHTSA. This will help ensure that safety related failures can be found more quickly and mitigated promptly. Certainly GM is complicit in this episode but if anyone thinks that it is easy to tell the complete story, they clearly don’t really understand the complexity of modern manufacturing, particularly auto manufacturing. There are hundreds of thousands of documents that are involved in just this story and numerous conversations required with involved parties. One point is very clear from my years of being a student of the auto industry around the world and that is neither GM nor any auto company would put profits ahead of consumer safety. In fact the safety features developed by the industry and particularly by GM, have resulted in the saving of tens of thousands of lives. Once these technologies are proven the federal government typically requires application across the industry. Examples of these technologies are numerous including energy absorbing steering columns, side-impact door beams, safety glass, air bags, stability control, anti-lock brakes and many more.
The media in their feeding frenzy often sensationalizes events well beyond what is appropriate. Let’s hope that cooler heads will prevail and we can get to the root cause of this problem and make sure we reduce the number of others in the future.