General Motors Quietly Installs Keyless Engine Shutoff

In 2011, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was considering countermeasures to the carbon monoxide hazard introduced by keyless ignition systems, it flat out rejected the idea of an automatic engine shut-off.  The agency argued that there was no good way to come up with a rule that would include a set time for the engine to shut itself off if the driver exited with the fob and inadvertently left the engine running.

“There are scenarios, such as leaving pets in the vehicle with the air conditioning or heating system on while the driver shops or is at a restaurant, where an automatic shut off of the propulsion system would have adverse results. It is our understanding that some drivers may stay in their vehicles for hours, for example, to sleep, with the air conditioning or heating system on. For the pet owner or the person staying in the vehicle for an extended period, it would be inconvenient if the propulsion system had to be restarted every 15 minutes or so,” the agency wrote in the NPRM.

Of course, the agency could have come up with a performance standard in which an idling vehicle in an enclosed space could only generate so many ppm of CO – whatever could lead to dangerous levels seeping into an adjoining structure – or some variant. But never mind – that’s not the news here. By Jove, now two major automakers have figured it out, over-heated puppies and car-nappers notwithstanding. And one of them – General Motors – kept this information from its customers for four years!

Both Ford and GM first implemented automatic engine shut down features in some of their MY 2013 vehicles.

According to owner’s manuals, Ford’s Automatic Engine Shutdown system automatically “shuts down the engine if it has been idling for an extended period. The ignition also turns off in order to save battery power. Before the engine shuts down, a message appears in the information display showing a timer counting down from 30 seconds. If you do not intervene within 30 seconds, the engine shuts down. Another message appears in the information display to inform you that the engine has shut down in order to save fuel.”

GM’s Extended Parking feature works this way in the 2015 Chevy Tahoe:

Extended Parking It is better not to park with the vehicle running. If the vehicle is left while running, follow the proper steps to be sure the vehicle will not move and there is adequate ventilation. See Shifting Into Park 0 259 and Engine Exhaust 0 261. If the vehicle is left in P (Park) while running and the Remote Keyless Entry (RKE) transmitter is outside the vehicle, the vehicle will turn off after one hour. If the vehicle is left in P (Park) while running and the RKE transmitter is inside, the vehicle will run for two hours. At the end of the second hour, the vehicle will turn off. The timer will reset if the vehicle is taken out of P (Park) while it is running.”

Based on GM technical service descriptions the earlier versions of Extended Parking allowed the vehicle to run in two 2.5 hour cycles, for a total run-time of five hours – if the fob was still in the vehicle while the engine was left running. The automaker eventually reduced it to two one-hour cycles in some models and two 1.5 hour cycles in others.

Ford didn’t exactly make a public relations splash when it added the automatic engine shut-off in the 2013 Ford Edge, Ford Fusion Titanium and Titanium Hybrid and the Lincoln MKZ, but at least it included a description of the safety measure in the owner’s manuals.

GM, according to service descriptions, implemented an engine shutdown feature in the 2013 Buick LaCrosse, Verano and Regal, the Chevy Cruze and Malibu and the Cadillac ATS, SRX, and XTS, without so much as a whisper to drivers. GM continued to expand the application of what it eventually branded the “Extended Parking Feature,” until all of its vehicles had it in 2017. Then, GM included a description in its owner’s manuals. 

Why the big secret?

Curiouser and Curiouser

Let’s push some timelines together.

In February 2009, Mary Rivera, a former college professor, suffered permanent brain damage when she unknowingly left her Lexus ES 350 idling in the garage beneath her home.  Her partner, Ernest Cordelia, died of CO poisoning.

(SRS began researching this issue in 2009. In August 2010 we met with the agency to express our concerns, and have submitted comments to the 2011 FMVSS 114 docket. SRS repeatedly emphasized to NHTSA that “the introduction of electronic keys in combination with push-button ignition systems has introduced new scenarios under which a driver can exit the vehicle, key fob in hand with the motor running, or with the engine off but the vehicle in a gear other than park. With today’s quiet engines, drivers can leave a vehicle, travel great distances from the vehicle with the key in their pockets while the engine is running or the transmission in neutral – all without being aware that they have done so. As we are seeing from owner complaints and litigation, the marriage of electronics with ignitions and locks have resulted in unintended consequences: carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaway crashes and easy thefts allowing manufacturers an erroneous – and as far as the consumer is aware – secret definition of the key that allows drivers to mistakenly believe that when they exit the vehicle with the fob, the engine is off and the vehicle transmission locked in the Park position – is antithetical to the spirit and letter of FMVSS 114.” You can read them here.)

In early 2009, SAE formed the Keyless Ignition Subcommittee in response to safety concerns and “concern regarding the myriad different ways manufacturers are implementing keyless ignition features,” as described in NHTSA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to fix the hazards introduced by keyless ignition systems. “The committee consisted of experts in the study of how humans interact with machines (human factors experts) and designers of keyless ignition systems from auto manufacturers and suppliers,” according to the NPRM. Ford and GM each had a representative on this committee.

As we’ve said many times, the great downside to electronic key systems is the transition of the key from a physical object to an invisible electronic code – the average consumer doesn’t really understand this, and conflates the fob with the key, because you need the former to start the vehicle, and because manufacturers brand the fob with names like Smart Key, or the visual alerts in the vehicle say “Key not Detected” in reference to the fob. However, unlike a traditional key, the fob plays no role in turning off the vehicle. When a driver is standing in his kitchen with a traditional car key in his hand, it is certain that the engine is off and his vehicle transmission is in Park, because you can’t remove the key otherwise. A driver holding a key fob in his hand has no such assurances. In many models, you can turn the engine off with the transmission in any position, and in all keyless vehicles you can take the fob with you, leave the motor running, and it will not turn off, just because the key fob is out of range – contrary to what many believe. No, for that you need an engineered software solution.

In the fall of 2010, stories about carbon monoxide deaths begin to circulate in the mainstream press, first, the September 2010 death of Chastity Glisson in a keyless Lexus IS250 and in November, the New York Daily News broke the Rivera story.

In January 2011, SAE issued its recommended practice J2948 for keyless ignition controls “based on the subcommittee members' experience with their company's vehicles and systems, knowledge of consumers' comments about the operation of the systems, knowledge of human factors engineering and, in some cases, knowledge of proprietary studies done during the development of their products (actual data was not shared with the group),” according the NPRM.

SAE J2948 noted four “errors” drivers might make: the inability to start and stop the vehicle propulsion system; exiting the vehicle with the automatic transmission in a non-parking gear; exiting the vehicle while the vehicle propulsion system is enabled; and exiting the vehicle while the vehicle propulsion system is disabled, but the accessory or electrical systems are active.”

The intent of the standard is stated as: “to help minimize these errors.”

In December 2011, NHTSA published its NPRM and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Ford and GM, immediately starts clutching its pearls over the very idea that NHTSA would try to make a rule to address these same conditions that the industry decided to address in early 2009.  

The Alliance proceeded to take a strip off the agency’s hide for attempting rulemaking on “anecdotal evidence,” provided by Vehicle Owner Questionnaires (VOQs) in which consumers reported rollaways or deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning when they mistakenly left their vehicles running. And the Alliance admonished NHTSA to do some human factors testing – even though it’s pretty clear that the automakers themselves didn’t do any before they installed keyless systems.

At the time there are only those two publicly known deaths – both in Toyotas. (Since then, the tally of reported carbon monoxide deaths has risen to 26 – including a couple who died in 2006 carbon monoxide deaths involving a Toyota Avalon.) Notice again that public knowledge follows industry efforts already underway that acknowledged the need to address the hazards of keyless ignitions.

In calendar 2012, both Ford and GM released MY 2013 keyless vehicles with automatic shut-off systems. Ford quietly put the information in the owner’s manuals; GM was completely silent on the issue.

Think about this timing. Given what we know about automaker’s development cycles, a Ford or GM plan to develop and implement an automatic engine cut-off feature was likely already well in the works somewhere between the time the SAE keyless ignition subcommittee convenes and the agency publishes its NPRM – yet its trade representative excoriates the agency for attempting regulations designed to prevent drivers from exiting their keyless vehicles with the fob and the engine running, by mandating what industry considers audible warnings that are too loud. Why? Because buzzers and beeps will annoy customers – a cardinal automotive design sin? Or, because at least two of their major members were quietly installing a much better solution?

And what does NHTSA know? In 2014, the agency launched a compliance evaluation of 2013-2014 keyless ignition vehicles from Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mazda, Hyundai and Kia, to test how their keyless ignition systems operate under different scenarios in which to determine if the Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention Standard had been violated. Among the population tested: two Fords and all of the GM vehicles had the engine idle shut-off feature. Specifically, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ and the 2013 Buick Verano and LaCrosse and the 2014 Ford Edge and the Buick Regal, Cadillac SRX and XTS. 

In the Information Request sent to each manufacturer, the agency asked: Describe in detail how the Subject Vehicles' engine/motor is stopped or turned off. Include in your response, how hard and long the driver must press the start/stop button, to which device the code or other electrical signal is sent (i.e., immobilizer or engine control unit ("ECU")), and which devices are turned off or deactivated by the ECU (i.e., starter, fuel pump, fuel injection system, etc.). Specify when exactly those devices are turned off or deactivated (i.e. after the engine/motor stop control is pressed to turn off the engine/motor, after the driver's door is opened, etc.)

Did Ford or General Motors include an explanation of the feature in their answers? We’ll venture a guess: No.

Why Does GM Keep It Quiet?

It is odd that GM chose not to tell customers or even dealership techs about this feature, until long after it was implemented in its vehicles.

In 2015, the public learns that GM had an engine idle shutoff feature in the 2014 Volt, as a result of a recall. GM launched campaign 15V145 to retrofit 2011-2013 Chevrolet Volts with software that would automatically shut off the engine after a set time of idling, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. The recall states:

“If a driver exits his/her vehicle and inadvertently leaves the vehicle “on” (because the driver fails to react to the cues and warning chimes emitted by the vehicle to alert the driver that the vehicle has not been turned off), after a period of time, the vehicle’s battery will drain and the vehicle’s gas engine will begin to run. If the gas engine runs for long periods of time within an enclosed space, such as a garage, carbon monoxide could build up in the enclosed space and potentially cause injury.”

The automaker’s Part 573 submission to NHTSA noted that it had initiated an investigation in August 2014, allegedly after a single customer complaint about the build-up of carbon monoxide in a garage caused by the engine inadvertently left running. (GM told Automotive News that it was aware of two carbon monoxide injuries.)

And here’s where it gets weird. In GM’s defect chronology, which accompanies all Part 573 submissions, the automaker wrote: “it was determined that the 2014 model year and beyond Volts contain software that automatically shuts down the vehicle after being left idle in a run state for a specific amount of time.”

Now, by MY 2014, Buicks, Cadillacs and all of the Chevrolets had an automatic engine shutdown feature – a significant subset had had it since calendar 2012 (MY 2013)! Yet, GM talks about a disembodied discovery, like it had no idea that it had been systematically installing an engine shutdown system through its carlines since 2012.

Its defect chronology continues:

“GM’s Safety and Field Action Decision Authority (SFADA) concluded that, because the investigation revealed customer error in leaving the vehicle in a run state was the primary factor contributing to the condition, and considering the warnings provided to the driver that the vehicle was left running and the low number of complaints relating to this issue, the appropriate remedy would be a customer satisfaction program to update the vehicle software to power down the vehicle if the vehicle was left running for an extended period of time.”

Super weird that they only want to do a customer satisfaction campaign because of bad, bad drivers, since, clearly, GM had long ago decided that this was a hazard, and had engineered a solution that had been implemented more than two years earlier in non-hybrid vehicles, where there isn’t even the possibility that the quiet electric powered motor will revert to the gasoline engine, if left running long enough.

According to the GM defect chronology, they only decided to move to a recall, at NHTSA’s suggestion. Did NHTSA know that GM already had a cut-off feature in so many of its models?

The next time GM publicly reveals the existence of this feature in other vehicles is to its dealers and their technicians in a series of technical service bulletins that appear to begin in 2015. Did the absence of an explanation for this feature lead to customer complaints about the engine shutting down? An examination of consumer complaints to NHTSA shows that drivers with models that employed the 2.5 to 5 hour run strategy in the earlier versions of the Extended Parking feature complained that their vehicle did not shut down. This driver of a 2014 Buick Verano was so frustrated, he filed two different complaints with NHTSA:

“This is my second complaint. My wife forgot to press the stop engine button again because of a distraction.  As a result she burned a quarter tank of gas while she was gone from the vehicle. Why is there not a safety shut off like the ten minute shut off in remote start mode? If this was in my integral garage I could be dead from carbon monoxide. Is this another shove it under the rug like the GM key scandal. Since so many vehicles are going to this technology why hasn't this been looked at? My wife is only 61 and in good health. What of the older folks with problems to do?”

The Preliminary Information technical bulletins to GM service technicians inform them that “Some customers may comment that the engine stops running after extended idle with shifter in Park.” No repair is required, the bulletin states – just educate the customer about the existence of the extended parking feature.

So, customers didn’t know, the dealership techs didn’t know, GM’s Safety and Field Action Decision Authority apparently didn’t know.

And what does NHTSA know about this? If they’ve been paying attention, they know from the TSBs that GM filed with the agency

How many other automakers have secretly added this countermeasure? 


Read The Safety Record Blog prior coverage on Keyless Ignition here



GM Stiffs Takata Recall, Petitions for Delay

Safety Research & Strategies response to this request: Deny! It’s rare for an automaker to request such a change – it’s even rarer for the agency to ask for comments. But, our focus on this issue tells us that the petition is a stunning display of chutzpah, considering that the automaker is already flouting the Consent Order it signed. GM has been selling unremedied recalled vehicles while telling its customers it isn’t replacing the airbags because there’s no problem. Everything we’ve learned about the history of this defect assures us – there ain’t no such guarantees.

Read the SRS comments below.

GM Escapes Liability

The New York bankruptcy court that oversaw the massive GM bailout in 2009 has dealt what may be a death knell to all claims for ignition-switch related deaths and injuries in crashes that happened before the bankruptcy. After GM’s massive coverup was exposed, some thought the court would surely feel outraged at being tricked into leaving millions of vehicle owners without recourse, but apparently GM waited long enough to make it too cumbersome and costly to undo the damage. The ruling could save GM billions of dollars in personal injury and economic damages payouts – which helps GM pay the lawyers who helped them perpetuate the fraud and use the bankruptcy to shield them.

By way of background, in 2009, GM was hemorrhaging money when the government offered it a lifeline: GM could file for chapter 11 bankruptcy and shed all of its liabilities into a company called “Old GM” while selling its profitable assets to “New GM,” a “new” corporation made up of all the same GM players, with the same products and – it turns out – the same desire to hide lurking defects, only this time backed by federal money. The kicker: New GM would assume the assets free and clear of all successor liability claims, including those for injuries or deaths that occurred even one day before the sale was final on June 29, 2009. Justice is meted out based on a calendar.

The ignition switch defect, while well known in many inside GM, was not easily connected or understood by law enforcement and investigators as the potential reason for loss of control crashes and airbag nondeployments.  Drivers were frequently faulted with the crashes.  Even people involved in their crashes did not realize a defect was to blame.

At least 24 “Old GM” engineers, executives and in-house lawyers, all of whom went to work for “New GM,” had known since 2003 that the defective ignition switch defect was lurking in about 27 million vehicles. But it wasn’t until five years later, in February 2014, that New GM attempted to recall a small portion of the vehicles – after the defect had been outed during discovery in a death case. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Lance Cooper, notified NHTSA that there was more to the story and requested an investigation into the issue.  Cooper represented the family of Brooke Melton, a woman killed when her car lost power and drifted into oncoming traffic in 2010.

New GM’s CEO Mary Barra immediately proclaimed how sorry GM was. As she told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in an April 2014 hearing: “As soon as I learned about the problem, we acted without hesitation. We told the world we had a problem that needed to be fixed. We did so because whatever mistakes were made in the past, we will not shirk from our responsibilities now and in the future. Today’s GM will do the right thing.”

More than 140 class actions were filed across the country, alleging that people who owned GM vehicles suffered economic losses, primarily for reduced resale value. These were consolidated into a Multi-District Litigation in the Southern District of New York. Many more cases were filed by families of the deceased or victims who were injured in crashes that occurred before the sale. (Cases involving post-sale crashes with any recalled vehicle and economic claims for vehicles bought after the sale are proceeding in the MDL as planned, with depositions to begin shortly.)

New GM acknowledged that it was liable for incidents that happened after the sale, even for vehicles manufactured and sold by Old GM. It set up a compensation fund, run by Kenneth Feinberg, that agreed to compensate victims whose crashes met certain criteria – for instance, inexplicably, that neither the airbag nor the seatbelt pretensioners deployed – and who submitted all documentation that the crash and/or lack of airbag deployment was likely the result of the defective ignition switch. But GM’s fund excluded many vehicles – including some makes and models covered under the ignition switch recalls.  Feinberg has approved 87 out of 475 death claims, and 157 out of 3,867 injury claims. Although the date for filing a claim has passed, the fund is still reviewing 1,085 claims.

And apparently, GM thinks the “right thing” means being forced to compensate only those people who crashed after it convinced the court to shed its liabilities. New GM refused to pay for incidents that happened, or economic claims for vehicles bought, before June 29, saying those were Old GM’s responsibility.  

“It’s like they have this GM hat. If it says ‘New GM’ on it, they are responsible. If it says ‘Old GM’ on it, they are not,” said Robert Hilliard, co-lead counsel in an MDL. “They’re saying we did this, it’s our fault, but we did it when we were wearing the Old GM hat. Not we’ve got the New GM hat on, so leave us the hell alone.”

Surprising some who thought the court would at least carve out an exception to the ban on successor liability for people who had been injured before the sale, Judge Robert Gerber ruled last week that all of the claims by pre-sale crash victims and most of the claims by economic damages plaintiffs are barred.  

Judge Gerber made several observations that should have been feathers in the plaintiffs’ caps: He found that at the time of the sale, Old GM knew it should issue a recall to owners of about 27 million vehicles with defective switches, which it could easily identify and send notices to. Old GM also knew that people had been injured or killed because of the defect and that more people would be injured or killed in the future. Because Old GM did not issue a recall notice nor inform owners of those vehicles that they might be a creditor who can object to the sale, it deprived the plaintiffs of their Due Process rights.

To the plaintiffs, that should have been enough to void the free and clear provision. Not so fast, the court said. What the plaintiffs lack is proof that the insufficient notice actually prejudiced them. During the bankruptcy sale hearing, about 850 entities objected to the provisions releasing New GM from liability for most claims and making it free and clear of successor liability. The court heard the arguments and rejected them in granting the sale.

“[N]either Plaintiff group has advanced any arguments on successor liability that were not previously made, and made exceedingly well before,” Judge Gerber ruled. “Their principle contention – that they would have won by reason of public outrage, political pressure, or the U.S. Treasury’s anger with Old GM, when they would not have won in the courtroom – is the very speculation that they rightfully criticize. Thus, insofar as successor liability is concerned, while the Plaintiffs established a failure to provide them with the notice due process requires, they did not establish a due process violation. The Free and Clear Provisions stand.”

What Judge Gerber didn’t say was how many of the objectors at the sale hearing were there because they had a vehicle with an ignition switch defect – which is likely none because they didn’t know about the defect.

“That’s the disconnect for me,” said Hilliard. “I really believe that if the families and victims had shown up, and the court had understood the breadth of the recall that should have been issued, the court would not have let the sale go forward.”

The only exception is that the economic damages plaintiffs alleged a new argument that the free and clear provision was overbroad because it precluded New GM’s liability for its own conduct. Thus, the economic damages plaintiffs have leave to file late claims that focus solely on New GM’s conduct after the sale. Given that all of the New GM decision makers were also Old GM decision makers, it’s unclear right now how easily the plaintiffs will be able to disentangle them to rely only on New GM’s conduct in their attempt to proceed.

Judge Gerber already certified the opinion for the Second Circuit. And there’s a chance that Judge Jesse Furman, who is overseeing the MDL, could decide to let the cases go forward anyway, in which case it would still end up before the Second Circuit. But for now, all claims related to pre-sale crashes are barred.

That means no recourse for one of Hilliard’s clients, a man whose pregnant wife died after an ignition switch-related crash in a vehicle not covered by the Feinberg fund. Hilliard said the man told him, “I can totally understand on a normal bankruptcy but when GM deliberately committed fraud and knowingly murdered innocent people destroying the lives of so many, that is just a straight up unethical violation of rights.”

Or for Rose Thompson, the mother of college student Teriel Thompson, who died in September 2006 after her 2005 Chevy Cobalt suddenly veered left on an Arkansas interstate, slid sideways and then rolled over multiple times before landing on the opposite side, where it was hit by another car. The airbag did not deploy, and Teriel, who was just 21, was ejected. Her mother contacted attorney Lance Cooper for representation years later, when the GM scandal came to light. Feinberg denied her claim, saying there wasn’t enough proximate cause evidence to tie it to the ignition switch defect.

“[GM CEO] Ms. Barra said they were going to do the right thing for these people, even the pre-bankruptcy claims. But they set it up so it’s Feinberg or nothing,” said Cooper. “It’s not what GM represented to the public when it said it was going to do the right thing.”

But one group made out really well: King & Spalding, the law firm that represented GM in the Melton case and offered the testimony of an engineer who later admitted to perjury for denying that GM knew about the ignition switch defect, will earn plenty for its representation of GM before Judge Gerber. Ironic that the same law firm that helped perpetuate the coverup is now getting paid to shield them from the ramifications now that they are caught.

If this were a thriller, movie-goers might be disappointed the good guy didn’t quite emerge the victor, but that may be the ending we’ve come to expect.

GM Airbag Non-Deployments: What the NHTSA Data Really Show

Since the General Motors ignition switch debacle blew wide open last spring, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has defended its years-long failure to recall the deadly vehicles by arguing that several other vehicle models had more consumer injury-crash complaints related to airbag non-deployment (ABND) than either the 2005-2006 Cobalt or the 2003-2005 Ion. But a new analysis has shown NHTSA is hanging its hat on an unscientific analysis of data that doesn’t support its claim. The study found no statistically significant difference between the other vehicles’ crash complaints and those of the Cobalt or Ion. Combining the Cobalt and Ion complaints, which NHTSA didn’t do, shows the injury complaint rate was actually 54 percent higher for the GM vehicles than their peers. The agency could have performed a statistical analysis itself but chose instead to ignore it in favor of a quick look at the chart.

Trying to explain why it did nothing in the nine years after it first learned of a 2005 fatal accident in which a Cobalt’s front airbag inexplicably did not deploy, NHTSA  has repeatedly pointed the finger at GM, saying the automaker didn’t provide enough information to detect a trend. It has based much of this assertion on two analyses of crash-injury complaint rates, in 2007 and 2010, respectively. The 2007 analysis found that 10 non-GM vehicles had more ABND injury complaints than either the Cobalt or Ion. The 2006 Cobalt had 2.03 injury crashes per 100,000 “exposure years,” slightly less than half of the peer 2005 Toyota Echo’s 3.90 crashes per 100,000 exposure years. The 2005 Cobalt had 1.99 injury crashes, and the 2003-2005 Ion had between 1.61 and 1.68 crashes.

In his written testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in April, NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman said that the analysis shows that there was no reason for GM to be on its radar: “The data available at the time of this evaluation did not indicate a safety defect or defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation. In particular, the available data did not indicate that the Cobalt or Ion were overrepresented compared to other peer vehicles with respect to injury-crash incident rates.” Friedman further testified that the other vehicles were “significantly higher” in the complaint index.

But NHTSA did not present its underlying data, and the statistical research firm Quality Control Systems Corp. (QCS) got curious: What would the data show if the vehicles were compared to determine the statistical significance of their rankings? After obtaining the data through a Freedom of Information Act request, QCS analyzed it using classical statistical tests to determine if the differences NHTSA saw were, in fact, statistically significant.

QCS found that all of the comparisons fell within the range that showed there was no statistically significant difference between the Cobalts and individual peer models with higher complaint rates. According to its analysis, “the results in Table 2 do not sustain Mr. Friedman’s testimony regarding injury crash airbag non-deployment complaint rates that, ‘…there were several vehicles that were significantly higher,’ insofar as that conclusion does not rest on evidence from an appropriate test of statistical significance.”

Because the sample sizes were relatively small, QCS went a step further and combined the Cobalt and Ion complaints to compare those with all other peer vehicles combined. This result was very statistically significant: The average complaint rate for the combined GM vehicles was 54 percent higher than for the other vehicles.

“NHTSA was impressed by evidence no statistician would think was good, and the one piece of evidence that could have opened the eyes of a statistician was ignored,” said Randy Whitfield, a principle of QCS. “It’s the style of analysis NHTSA has been using for years and years. If they see something that lets them off the hook, where they don’t have to do hard work and they’re not going to have to fight with a manufacturer, if you can give them the least scrap of evidence, they jump on it.”

Even if the statistics weren’t scientifically unsound and overstated, a look at what was going on within NHTSA’s walls when it did the analysis shows that at least some people in the agency wanted an investigation into higher-than-average ABND incidents. The Energy and Commerce Committee’s staff report on the recall found that NHTSA undertook the analysis after the Early Warning Division confirmed 43 crashes—with 27 injuries and four deaths—linked to ABND. The agency had two investigation reports from crashes that mentioned that the engine was in the accessory mode. GM’s warranty claim rate for Cobalt airbags was significantly higher than that of its peer vehicles, and the Cobalt had the most airbag-related property damage claims. GM had also already issued three technical service bulletins for its airbag system.

That division referred the issue to the Defects Assessment Division (DAD), which opened an issue evaluation. DAD’s chief, Gregory Magno, eventually sent an email to the heads of several other NHTSA departments saying, “Notwithstanding GM’s indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non-deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers and that their circumstances are such that, in our engineering judgment, merited a deployment, and that such a deployment would have reduced injury levels or saved lives.” Magno was concerned enough to request that NHTSA open an investigation within two weeks.

The Office of Defects Investigation panel waited two months before deciding there wasn’t enough evidence of a defect, based in large part on the complaints analysis. They dismissed the earlier accidents because they were off-road, had multiple impacts, and involved unbelted occupants.

So it wasn’t just that NHTSA didn’t delve closely into what the rankings actually meant—it gave unscientifically analyzed consumer complaints rates more weight than the growing rate of accidents and deaths, the significant number of airbag warranty claims, the GM technical service bulletins, and reports connecting the dots between the ABND and the ignition switch.

Flash forward to the 2010 analysis, and it does appear the number of consumer complaints to NHTSA fell significantly. The QCS evaluation confirmed that complaint rates for the 2005 Cobalt fell by 90 percent, and for the 2006 Cobalt, they fell by 75 percent. In interviews, Friedman said it was because GM secretly changed the ignition switch design in later models. But QCS said that doesn’t explain a radical drop in complaints for older models, which weren’t repaired. It could be that people are much less likely to complain to NHTSA if their car is out of warranty or they are no longer making payments on it. Whitfield said they don’t know why the complaints dropped so much, but it’s a question that is no longer being asked despite no real answer.

“Friedman told Congress and wrote a letter to USA Today saying it was the secret ignition switch change. How could that be when nobody knew about it and it wasn’t recalled? Why should we think we’ve gotten to the bottom of this, when NHTSA’s explanation is unsupported by the evidence in the public record?”

And, again, the numbers don’t tell the whole story: According to the committee staff report, the Early Warning Division noticed that in the second quarter of 2009, GM’s data showed, as the division’s chief said in an email to DAD, “a lot of death and injury incident reported from the Chevy Cobalt and Chevy Trailblazer 360 where the primary component is air bag.” NHTSA may not have been racking up consumer complaints in its database, but it knew people were still dying. And what did it do? Nothing – until it was asked by attorney Lance Cooper to investigate GM’s initial ignition switch recall.  

Solutions for NHTSA’s systemic problems need to include more than increased funding – which the agency certainly can use – but putting more money into an agency that hides behind incomplete, unscientific data to defend itself when scandals break is not a sound investment. 

A copy of the QCS report can be found here.

Senate Holds Hearings on NHTSA and House Releases Staff Report on GM Ignition Switch

Another big day for NHTSA as the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance will hold a hearings today at 2:30 pm titled “Oversight of and Policy Considerations for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” chaired by Subcommittee Chairman Claire McCaskill (D-MO).  Earlier today House Committee on Energy and Commerce released its Staff Report on the GM ignition switch crises. 

The Safety Record hasn’t unpacked all of the details of the House report, but we thought a quick comparison was in order: 

Safety Research & Strategies June 13, 2011 presentation to the National Academy of Sciences:

"Absent regulation and investigators with detailed and independent understanding of current technology, the crises will continue to occur…" (slide 26, “Toyota Unintended Acceleration: Learning From Crises and Moving Forward Sean Kane Safety Research & Strategies, Inc)


House Staff report on GM Ignition Switch and NHTSA:

"As manufacturers began implementing new advanced air bag systems, NHTSA’s safety defect investigators’ understanding of the systems failed to keep pace with the evolution of the technology. Critically, NHTSA investigators were completely unaware of the link between power mode and the air bag system until the GM recall in 2014."

(U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND COMMERCE Staff Report on the GM Ignition Switch Recall: Review of NHTSA September 16, 2014, Page 34)


Watch today’s Senate hearing at 2:30 pm EDT here.

While You Were Out …

We’re all familiar with the Friday afternoon news dump – release something controversial at close of business on the last day of the week. Don’t leave reporters much time for digging or tracking down interview subjects, and hope everyone is too busy livin’ for the weekend to pay attention. The holiday news dump is a variation on this theme and last week, as Americans were preparing to grill hotdogs and wave sparklers, some big news broke out: Graco added 1.9 million infant carriers to an earlier recall of 4.2 million safety seats for harness buckles that were nearly impossible to unlatch, making it the largest child seat recall in U.S. history. NHTSA released some after-the-fact testing and another Special Order related to a dubious customer satisfaction campaign related to rear-impact Jeep fires. GM found yet more vehicles with a bum ignition switch that needed to be recalled and laid out its compensation protocol for past victims of its malfeasance. Head below for the details:

Graco Harness Buckle Recall

Five months after Jennifer Timian of the NHTSA’s Recall Management Division sent Graco a blistering recall acknowledgement letter reaming out the manufacturer for minimizing the safety hazard of harness buckles that do not unlatch, Graco has surrendered. It added 1.9 million infant carriers to an earlier recall of about 4 million convertible and booster seats with a harness buckle that was so difficult to unlatch, that consumers reported the need to cut their children out of the seat.

Graco’s Feb. 7 Part 573 Notice of Defect and Noncompliance did a 180 in tone and substance from its original recall notice in February, in which the child safety seat-maker made it clear that it would rather eat ground glass than concede that harness buckles that become stuck by design or contamination could present a safety hazard in an emergency:

While Graco and NHTSA have not reached an accord over the nature or severity of this  issue, Graco in an abundance of caution has agreed to submit this 573 report and engage in a recall for the Subject Child Restraints.

It reluctantly recalled about 4 million convertible and booster seats, including Cozy Cline, Comfort Sport, Classic Ride 50, My Ride 65, My Ride w/Safety Surround, My Ride 70, Size 4 Me 70, Smartseat, Nautilus, Nautilus Elite, and Argos 70 models. But, Graco declined to recall an additional 1.8 million rear facing infant seats. 


This time, Graco’s phrasing was more careful. While the word “defect” was never whispered, Graco’s memory of the first recall was all soft-focus:

Based on its discussion with NHTSA, Graco determined that a safety recall was warranted with regard to forward-facing toddler and harnessed booster car seats due to the probability that, and in addition to the ergonomic issues noted above, the physical orientation and use patterns of those seats with older children increased the potential for foreign material to interfere with the buckle mechanism over time. This in turn could make extraction of the child occupant more difficult in an emergency situation, thereby increasing the risk of injury.

This is what is alleged to have happened to Leiana Marie Ramirez, who died in a vehicle fire three days before her second birthday, strapped in a Graco Nautilus child safety seat. Her mother  Samika Ramirez was southbound on Arroyo Seco Parkway in South Pasadena, when Samika pulled her Nissan Altima to the side of the divided highway, suspecting that she had a flat tire. Another driver, who hadn’t noticed the stopped Altima, struck it in the rear, touching off a fire. According to the police reports, Samika tried to unbuckle her daughter, but could not release the harness. The flames engulfing her car were too intense, and onlookers pulled Samika Ramirez out of the car. The Ramirez family filed a civil lawsuit against Graco in October 2012, as NHTSA was opening an investigation into the problem. At the time of the recall, Graco had not reported this lawsuit to NHTSA, as it is required to do, under the Early Warning Reporting regulations.

Graco really had no choice but to widen the recall. NHTSA was threatening to go to an Initial Determination if Graco didn’t recall the infant carriers as well. And when the agency is ready to go to the mat, a manufacturer can count on lots of negative news stories about its products and its corporate behavior. That’s perhaps, more costly to the bottom line than a recall.

Chrysler Jeep Wrangler Fires

In other holiday news, the agency has issued a Special Order to Chrysler demanding to know when in the heck it was going to initiate the trailer hitch remedy it grudgingly agreed to implement more than a year ago after former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former NHTSA administrator David Strickland cut a deal with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne to avoid a legal struggle. One year after Chrysler filed its Part 573, not one Jeep has been remedied, and at the rate Chrysler is going, it will take it nearly five years to implement it. The agency has taken umbrage:

For many owners, a recall remedy deferred by parts availability easily becomes a defect remedy denied. Moreover, additional delays in implementing this recall will inure to Chrysler’s benefit at the expense of vehicle owner safety. Although NHTSA acknowledges that recall campaigns may have low completion rates for any number of reasons, the agency has no intention of allowing Chrysler, or any other manufacturer, to delay recall completion to the detriment of safety.

Our readers may recall that NHTSA and Chrysler were on a collision course last spring over the unfortunate tendency of older Jeeps with behind-the-axle, rear-mounted fuel tanks to burst into flames when struck from the rear – especially at higher speeds. The Center for Auto Safety had been petitioning NHTSA for a Jeep recall since November 2009, when it formally requested that the agency open an investigation into fuel-fed fires in Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 1992-2008 model years. The advocacy group alleged that the plastic fuel tank’s placement and the lack of adequate shielding – similar in design to the infamous Ford Pinto – made it more vulnerable to rupture or leakage from rear-impacts and in rollovers.

In August 2010, the agency granted the CAS petition and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis Chrysler was pretty adamant that it didn’t see a problem here, and NHTSA was equally insistent that something be done. NHTSA formally requested that Chrysler conduct a recall, and with the deadline for a formal reply looming, LaHood, Marchionne, and Strickland met in Chicago and came to a compromise.

Chrysler agreed to outfit 1.5 million, 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs with trailer hitches, installed on vehicles not already so equipped “provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation.” Chrysler agreed to inspect vehicles with aftermarket and Chrysler-designed tow hitches “to assess whether the hitch and surrounding areas show evidence of sharp edges or other puncture risks. For those vehicles with after-market hitches, Chrysler will replace it with a Chrysler tow hitch “provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation.” In closing the Engineering Analysis, the agency said that it “had no reservations” about the trailer hitch “fix.”  Chrysler described it in its Defect and Non-Compliance Notice as “an incremental improvement” to safety in low-speed rear impact crashes.

These Special Orders, (coming so regularly now, we don’t know if they are that special any more.) are signs that NHTSA is trying mightily to acquire a spine. But this one, in particular, shows why the agency has a long way still to go.

After the Secretary of Transportation cuts the deal, ODI questions the effectiveness of the remedy in a meeting with Chrysler.

The automaker tries to allay these concerns by providing “drawings of the hitches and a limited set of test data.” When ODI questions the sufficiency of those offerings, Chrysler says it won’t do anything else.

NHTSA is then forced to conduct its own tests. And if a report about those crash tests can be believed — eight rear impact crash reconstruction tests conducted from August 2013 to January – at speeds of up to 40 mph, all is well.

When NHTSA shares it glad tidings about the tests with Chrysler, NHTSA finds out that Chrysler had waited until December 2013, to select a hitch supplier and actually placed an order in late January 2014. The first run of hitches wasn’t actually produced until May 14, and Chrysler wouldn’t have all its parts stockpiled until next month.

Basically, Chrysler’s actions might be construed as a chronic middle finger to ODI.  And the Special Order? Pretty wimpy compared to some of the zingers coming out of the Chief Counsel’s office these days.

CAS, which has tirelessly championed this issue, rightly points out that its consumers who are getting the shaft. The tests, while nice, fall short of those the agency did the Ford Pinto of the 1970s, and short of today’s FMVSS 301 fuel tank integrity test, which requires a 50-mph 30 percent offset from a 3015 pound moving barrier with low front end — more severe than the ones NHTSA for the Chrysler tow-hitch “fix.”

In the meantime, CAS reports, four people have died and two have been seriously injured in rear-impact Jeep collisions since Chrysler announced its remedy last June.

Ignition Switch Nightmare Continues

GM celebrated the holiday week, as they do every week since Marietta, Georgia attorney Lance Cooper broke the news that General Motors knew it had a defective ignition switch in the 2005-2007 Cobalt and other models for at least a decade, by announcing an expanded recall. Chrysler also announced that it was adding 696,000 2007-2009 Chrysler Town & Country minivans and Dodge Journey SUVs to its 2011 ignition-switch recall of 196,000 Journeys, Caravans and Town & Country vehicles due to ignition keys that could slip from the “run” to “accessory” position, shutting down the engine, and the power steering and airbags with it.

On Monday of the holiday week, the GM recall ballooned to 8.4 million vehicles globally. This compelled Time journalists, bored with the sheer repetition of ignition recall, after ignition recall, after Congressional hearing, after document dump, after revelation that yet another GM insider warned them about this defect years ago, are forced to come up with ridiculous fun facts about the fiasco, such as: “The recalled vehicles could wrap around the Earth more than four times and The longest time between recalls hasn’t even been longer than the World Cup. Funny stuff! (Remember when Time was relevant?)

GM also announced its compensation plan for owners of ten Chevrolet, Daewoo, Open/Vauxhall, Pontiac and Saturn vehicles with a death or injury claim for a crash that occurred before December 2014. One key case killer: airbag or seat belt pre-tensioner deployment. Any evidence of either in a crash and the claim is ineligible. What technical support does GM have for drawing its bright line in that particular place? Kenneth R. Feinberg, Administrator of the GM Ignition Compensation Claims Resolution Facility, couldn’t answer that question at his holiday week presser.


NHTSA’s Message to the Defense: Call Us Before We Call You

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This week, while heads were rolling out the doors of the RenCen (GM headquarters) in downtown Detroit, the Chief Counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was laying down the law for defense lawyers at a Chicago legal conference.

Amid the presentations at the American Conference Institute’s 7th Annual Summit on Defending & Managing Automotive Product Liability Litigation devoted to defeating class-actions, the liability of autonomous cars and one of our personal faves –tire aging (with a shout-out to SRS’ Sean Kane!), was a warning from the government.

First, Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent lulled them with a feel-good “rah-rah-ree” paean to industry. And then, he made the hair on the back of their necks rise: A manufacturer’s obligation to report a defect within five days of its discovery is the law, and after a long hiatus from doing its job, NHTSA intended to take “an aggressive stance” in enforcing it.

The first offense line in the discovery of a defect was not the Office of Defects Investigation, Vincent said. It was the manufacturers themselves.

“We don’t have analysts, but your clients do. You all have ability to find these defects,” he said.

A manufacturer cannot delay a defect finding, while a safety problem meanders through an internal process involving multiple committees. It cannot hide its knowledge behind a wall of attorney work product and attorney-client privilege. It cannot wait until it’s gotten the supply chain ready to implement the recall.

And it better not wait until after it settles a plaintiff’s case for big bucks. The TREAD Act obligated NHTSA to “follow up on civil litigation that sends up red flags,” he said.  And they’d be looking for signs of foot-dragging in large civil litigation settlements. Not right away, certainly. Civil actions take years, he said. (This gives the safety problem plenty of time to fester.) How much of a settlement was enough to catch NHTSA’s attention? Vincent wouldn’t name a figure. Continue reading

Melton Family Charges GM with Fraud; Asks for Sanctions

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The parents of Brooke Melton, who died in March 2010 crash caused by a well-known ignition switch defect, returned to a Georgia state court, charging General Motors with fraudulent concealment and perjury in the civil liability case that was settled in September. And, just for good measure, they’ve filed a sanctions motion, via their attorneys Lance Cooper and Jere Beasley for discovery abuse and spoliation of evidence.

The Melton case has unleashed a world of hurt on General Motors – an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congressional oversight, class action lawsuits and general opprobrium. The company knew for nearly a decade that a loose ignition switch in six models – including the 2005-2007 Cobalt – could move from the “Run” to “Accessory” or “Off” position, turning off the power steering, anti-lock brakes and disabling the airbags, before recalling 1.6 million vehicles in North America. At least 13 deaths have been linked to the defect. The decade-long narrative of what GM knew, when it knew it, how it responded to the problem – or not – included the revelation that one of the obstacles to pinpointing the defect was a design change to the ignition switch that GM originally blamed on the supplier, but no change in the part number – a huge No-No.

In the face of a document showing that the Cobalt’s lead design engineer Ray DeGiorgio signed off on the new ignition switch without assigning a new part number, GM has since admitted that he may have lied under oath. Continue reading

The GM Hearings – Our Take

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill opened the second day of hearings into the General Motors ignition switch defect and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s response to the issue by forging the strongest ties yet between the revelations that GM had hidden the defect for years and the civil litigation system.

McCaskill repeatedly (along with other U.S. senators and representatives yesterday and today) acknowledged the public debt to Lance Cooper, the Marietta, Georgia lawyer who represents the family of Brooke Melton, the 29-year-old woman who died in 2010 when the ignition module of her 2005 Cobalt slipped into the accessory position as she drove along Highway 92 in Paulding County, Ga. Melton’s Cobalt skidded into another vehicle, and Melton died of her injuries in the crash. Cooper’s dogged pursuit of GM materials through the discovery process showed that GM knew about the problems for years before launching a recall that only covered some of the affected models.

The ensuing avalanche of press led to a larger recall, and a government probe, and the April hearings.

But before the crush began, Cooper formally requested that NHTSA open a Timeliness Query, based on everything he had learned. And, it’s a good thing that McCaskill gave Cooper some credit, because to this day, NHTSA has not acknowledged his letter in any way. Not a phone call, not an email, not a letter. The bubble. Continue reading

GM and NHTSA’s “Magic Formula”

Tomorrow, the heads and NHTSA and GM will head into the House committee for a three-Bromo-seltzer morning on the topic of: What Did You Know and When Did You Know It?

We, at The Safety Record, are most interested in understanding why NHTSA declined to investigate the defective ignition modules in early model year Chevy Cobalts and other models, after two Special Crash Investigations, 29 complaints, four deaths and the considered opinion of Defects Assessment Division (DAD) Chief.

According to a briefing report prepared by Majority Staff of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, the decision point for the agency was the fall of 2007:

In September of that year, the DAD Chief “emailed other ODI officials and proposed an investigation of “frontal airbag nondeployment in the 2003-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt/Saturn Ion.” The Chief of the Defects Assessment Division went on to state that the “issue was promoted by a pattern of reported non-deployments in VOQ [Vehicle Owners’ Questionnaire] complaints that was first observed in early 2005. Since that time, [the Defects Assessment Division] has followed up on the complaints, enlisted the support of NCSA’s Special Crash Investigations (SCI) team, discussed the matter with GM, and received a related EWD Referral. Notwithstanding GM’s indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non-deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers.”

Two months later, an “ODI IE panel reviewed the proposal to open an investigation into non-deployment of airbags in 2003-2006 Cobalts and Ions. A PowerPoint presentation prepared by the DAD and dated November 17, 2007, states that its review was prompted by 29 Complaints, 4 fatal crashes, and 14 field reports. During a briefing with Committee staff, ODI officials explained that the panel did not identify any discernible trend and decided not to pursue a more formal investigation.”

The Safety Record has long observed that we can find no “discernible trend” in NHTSA’s investigation decisions. In a March 8, 2014 New York Times story on the GM debacle ODI Chief Frank Borris said that that calls are made by “really well-seasoned automotive engineers who leverage a lot of technology and lean on past precedent about when to open, when to close, and when to push for a recall. It’s no magic formula.”

Take out the word “magic,” and for once, we agree with Frank.

In February, Safety Research & Strategies submitted comments to NHTSA’s 2014-2018 Strategic Plan docket pointing out this perennial problem, well-documented in a series of Office of Inspector General reports going back to 2002:

– NHTSA uses an unstructured process for determining defects and inconsistent or nonexistent criteria for initiating defect investigations.

– NHTSA makes poor use of available data and refuses to consider information from sources outside the agency or the manufacturer.

– NHTSA focuses on defects that are easily and inexpensively remedied, frequently ignoring more complicated and dangerous defects. Continue reading