Writing Assignment General Motor (GM)

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Answer the following question. Minimum 4 paragraphs.

What changes need to be made at GM - their possible structure, culture and assumptions about stakeholders (and perhaps have been made) to ensure that this mistake won't be repeated.

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Darmstadter, Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016), 3: 1134030 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030 CULTURE, MEDIA & FILM | CRITICAL ESSAY The Times and General Motors: What went wrong? Howard Darmstadter1* Received: 20 October 2015 Accepted: 16 December 2015 Published: 18 January 2016 *Corresponding author: Howard Darmstadter, 1159 Rock Rimmon Road, Stamford, CT 06903-1210, USA E-mail: hdarmstadter@gmail.com Reviewing editor: Lincoln Geraghty, University of Portsmouth, UK Additional information is available at the end of the article Abstract: In 2014 General Motors Company (GM) recalled more than 2.6 million automobiles to replace a defective ignition switch that had been implicated in more than a dozen deaths. Despite early problems with the switch, it took GM almost 11 years to initiate the recall. The recall announcement led to a firestorm of media criticism. Much of that criticism, however, was badly distorted. I concentrate on The New York Times’ coverage because it is a trusted news source, and because it devoted substantial resources to the story. Problems with The Times’ coverage were likely magnified in less reliable media outlets. I describe what we know about the switch problem and General Motors’ attempts to solve it, and try to explain the forces—mainly psychological—that warped The Times reporting. These forces—love of a story with heroes, villains, and a moral dimension; willingness to view group human activity on the model of individual human activity; overly simple theories of human motivation; a tendency to attribute beliefs and desires to organizations—are not unique to The Times or this particular story, and can thus be expected to affect media reports of other corporate decision-making. Subjects: Journalism; Journalism & Professional Media; Media Psychology; Media Studies; Newspapers; Newswriting and Reporting Keywords: General Motors; ignition switch recall; New York Times; organizational decisionmaking; media biases 1. Introduction On 7 February 2014, General Motors Company (GM) announced a safety recall that eventually covered 2.6 million vehicles from model-years 2003 through 2007 (Valukas, 2014, p. 226). The recall was to replace a defective ignition switch1 implicated in more than a dozen deaths.2 (The recall mainly involved Chevrolet’s Cobalt model, but also included Saturn Ions, Pontiac G5s, and other GM models; I’ll refer to them all as “Cobalts.”)3 Despite early awareness of problems with the switch, and of the fatalities, it took GM almost 11 years to initiate the recall.4 ABOUT THE AUTHOR PUBLIC INTEREST STATEMENT Howard Darmstadter is a retired philosophy professor and lawyer with more than 70 publications in law, philosophy, psychology, and public policy. The New York Times’ coverage of General Motors’ recall of defective ignition switches in over 2.6 million cars was badly distorted. The reporters ignored the only detailed independent study of the problem, instead filling the vacuum with stories that reflected their own preconceptions. These biases are not unique to The Times or the particular story, but can be expected to warp media coverage of much organizational decisionmaking, especially where complex technical issues are involved. © 2016 The Author(s). This open access article is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) 4.0 license. Page 1 of 15 Darmstadter, Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016), 3: 1134030 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030 Reactions to the announcement were loud and critical. Congressmen called for investigations, and Joan Claybrook, a former director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA), opined that “General Motors should be criminally prosecuted for covering up this safety defect.” (Jensen, 2014b. Here and throughout, dates for New York Times stories refer to the byline date, not the date the story appeared in the print edition). While there was extensive media coverage, one media outlet “flooded the zone” (to use a former editor’s metaphor): In the year following GM’s initial announcement, The New York Times website carried over 200 stories on the defective switch and its consequences.5 I focus on The Times’ coverage for several reasons. For one, The Times is a trusted source—a “paper of record.”6 Times reporters are serious and scrupulous professionals. If there are deficiencies at The Times, then there are likely to be larger problems at lesser organizations. Moreover, no other mass media outlet covered the story as extensively. The Times’ team of reporters had ample opportunity to understand and explain what happened and to correct any mistakes. Nonetheless, despite these moral and material advantages, The Times’ coverage was substantially flawed. Newspaper accounts of complicated business stories necessarily involve some distortion, as journalists struggle to boil down a complex reality into compact daily reports. Almost everyone I know who has been involved in events that were reported in the press has been dismayed by the oversimplifications. The reporter, however, must mediate between a complex web of events and a readership that seldom has the patience for the full account. The trick is to separate the essential structure of events from the enveloping mass of less important detail. But the flaws in The Times’ reporting were not simply oversimplification, or reporting the trivial while missing the essential. Rather, the coverage erred in distorting the facts to meet certain flawed assumptions and practices that the reporters brought to the story, assumptions and practices that not only characterize The Times’ coverage of this particular story, but frequently control the reporting of business events in the media generally. The presence of these almost-predictable distortions raises questions about the reliability of the media in a free society. But before we can understand what The Times, and by extension the media, did wrong, we have to understand what GM did wrong. 2. The Valukas report About a month after the recall announcement, GM directed the Chicago-based law firm of Jenner & Block to prepare “an unvarnished account” of why it took so long to recall the Cobalts (Valukas, 2014, p. 5). Jenner & Block’s effort was headed by Anton R. Valukas, a former federal prosecutor. On 29 May 2014 Mr. Valukas delivered a 276-page report (plus 49 pages of appendices) to GM’s Board of Directors, who made the report public on 4 June. The Valukas report is likely to be the best account we’ll get of what went wrong at GM. Valukas’s team had “unfettered access,”7 reviewing millions of internal documents8 and interviewing over 230 people (some more than once), including all the important players at GM.9 However, the Valukas team did not commission any new engineering studies, so what we know about the crashes is what GM knew, as ferreted out by Valukas and his team. As Valukas reports, the engineers at GM (eventually) came up with a plausible theory about the role the defective switch played in the crashes, a theory that explained most of the accidents they studied. One can legitimately be suspicious of the Valukas report. It was commissioned by GM’s management, was put together quickly, and ended up absolving GM’s top officers. (It did, however, lead to the firing of some 15 GM employees, not all of them low-level (Stout, Ruiz, & Ivory, 2014).) But the GM engineers’ theory presented in the Valukas Report has not been seriously questioned, and is thus the only theory currently on offer; anyone with a different theory will have to produce a more compelling explanation. Moreover, the Report presents a plausible narrative of organizational disfunction that fits in with other studies. In what follows, I’ll accept the account presented in the Valukas report. Page 2 of 15 Darmstadter, Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016), 3: 1134030 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030 3. The low-torque switch The ignition switches installed in the Cobalt from its introduction in model year (MY) 2003 into MY 2007 allowed the key to be turned on and off with so little force (torque) that the key could move from the on (RUN) position to the accessory (ACC) position when lightly jarred, as could happen if the key fob was brushed by the driver’s knee (Valukas, 2014, pp. 59–61) or the car hit a curb or pothole.10 When the key moved to ACC, the engine shut down and the steering and brakes, denied power assist, became heavy. More critically, after approximately 0.15 s power for the airbag sensor was lost, so that the airbags would not deploy in a crash.11 (Shutting off power to the sensor when the key was in the ACC position was a deliberate design choice, to prevent the airbags inflating while the car was stationary.12) It’s not clear why the switch, manufactured by Delphi Mechatronics, had such low torque, which was outside GM’s established parameters and contrary to the original switch specification.13 Raymond DeGiorgio, the GM engineer mainly responsible for the switch, knew about the low-torque condition but approved the switch, apparently because he feared that changing the switch would compromise its electrical performance.14 (The switch had so many electrical problems in development and early production15 that DeGiorgio signed an instruction to Delphi not to increase the rotational torque as “Ray (tired of the switch from hell) DeGiorgio”).16 The Valukas teams were unable, after interviewing hundreds of witnesses, to find any GM employee besides DeGiorgio who knew before 2013 that the switch failed to meet the original torque specification.17 4. Moving stalls Complaints about stalling caused by the key turning to ACC while the car was moving began to reach GM soon after the first Cobalts hit the streets, but DeGiorgio and the other GM engineers who worked on the switch (whom I’ll call the “switch engineers”) apparently did not know that when the key was in the ACC position the airbags would not deploy.18 They believed, however, that a car without power remains controllable, so they considered the ignition switch problem a “customer convenience” rather than a safety issue.19 Consequently, they felt no pressure to solve the problem quickly.20 (GM personnel met several times in 2004 and 2005 with NHTSA officials about the general issue of engine stalling, and concluded that the Agency did not see it as a per se safety issue; there seems to have been no discussion of the Cobalt’s particular stalling problem.21) In response to GM’s worries about the volume of customer complaints, DeGiorgio proposed replacing the switch with a higher torque version,22 but in September 2005 an upper level GM engineering committee rejected his suggestion, apparently for cost considerations; the committee still considered the issue merely one of customer convenience.23 Notwithstanding the committee’s rejection of his proposal, in April 2006 DeGiorgio approved a modified switch with higher torque, which began to be installed during MY 2007. The stalling problem was solved.24 5. The airbag problem In 2006 a different group of GM engineers (whom I’ll call the “airbag engineers”) became aware of a fatal Cobalt crash early that year in which the car’s airbags did not deploy and the car’s “black box” (technically, the “sensing diagnostic module” or “SDM”) indicated that the ignition switch was in the ACC position at the moment of impact.25 These engineers knew that turning the switch to ACC would disable the airbags, but they thought that the airbag did not deploy because the impact had been to the car’s right front corner rather than head-on. (A picture of the wreck confirms the corner impact (Jensen, 2014c).) This may be an appropriate moment to introduce a consideration that figured only peripherally in the Valukas report and was never mentioned in The Times’ coverage: Airbags don’t always work. A 2009 study concluded that airbags failed to deploy in 8% of fatal front-end crashes; (Braver, McCartt, Sherwood, Fraade-Blanar, & Scerbo, 2009, p. 6). Earlier studies had put the rate as high as 18%.26 Page 3 of 15 Darmstadter, Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016), 3: 1134030 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030 (None of the studied non-deployments involved a Cobalt.) Most of these failures could be explained by specific crash characteristics—for example, a “complete underride” with a large truck where the vehicle hood is not contacted, or an impact that is mainly to the side27—but the deployment failures in up to 2% of fatal crashes could not be explained. 6. Outsiders pinpoint the switch In 2007 two outsiders connected a Cobalt’s airbag non-deployment to the ignition switch: A Wisconsin state trooper at the site of a fatal crash reported that the ignition key was in the ACC position and surmised that the airbags had failed to deploy for that reason, (Valukas, 2014, pp. 116–118). and an Indiana University Transportation Research Center report on the crash reached the same conclusion.28 The outsiders’ reports were in GM’s files and the public record,29 but the airbag engineers only became aware of the Indiana report in 2012, at which time they discounted it because it did not square with their other information—some of it, alas, misinformation.30 The outsiders were able to connect the dots because they had fewer dots to connect.31 There’s another reason, not discussed in the Valukas report, why the airbag engineers might have discounted information provided by outsiders: Many of these outsiders were plaintiffs or their lawyers, who had a great deal to gain if an accident’s cause could be pinned on a GM design defect. This is not new territory: The MY1982–87 Audi 5000 model and various MY2000–10 Toyotas were claimed by persons involved in accidents to have had “sudden acceleration”—“unintended, unexpected, high-power accelerations from a stationary position or a very low initial speed accompanied by an apparent loss of braking effectiveness.” (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, [NHTSA], 1989). Audi sales suffered, and Toyota initiated massive recalls and a $1.2 billion settlement, as a result of these claims. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration later concluded that most of the sudden-acceleration crashes resulted from driver error (“pedal application error” being the regulatory euphemism).32 Outside information frequently fails to be objective. 7. Attention turns to the switch The investigation into the Cobalt airbag problems did not focus on the ignition switch until mid-2009 when an airbag engineer who had been keeping a spreadsheet of the incidents noticed that SDM data indicated that the switch was in the ACC position in a number of crashes where the airbag did not deploy. (Not all Cobalts in these crashes had an SDM, and in those that did the SDM showed the switch to be in RUN about half the time (Valukas, 2014, pp. 9, 129, 135, 156, 206).) The airbag engineers, still unaware of the stalling problem the switch engineers had dealt with, began to focus on the electrical system as the possible cause of the ACC readings. They had noticed that many of the airbag non-deployments involved off-road crashes, and soon came up with a theory—“contact bounce”—that sought the cause in the internals of the switch rather than the key position. The theory was that jarring the ignition switch—as when you jump a curb or hit other offroad objects—could “open up” the switch, so that the signaling mechanism for the airbags would report the key as in the ACC position and shut off power to the airbag system.33 The engineers conducted “abusive and teeth-chattering tests” in 2009 “in which the car was driven through steep ditches and deep potholes” without ever getting the switch to “open up.”34 The Report doesn’t say, but presumably the engineers were testing Cobalts built after the ignition switch change; otherwise the bouncing would likely have caused the key to rotate to ACC. The airbag engineers were still unaware that the switch had been changed during MY 2007. 8. The switch is seemingly absolved Sometime later in 2009 the airbag engineers realized that non-deployments had ceased for MY 2008 and later Cobalts,35 which caused them to rule out the switch as a potential cause of the non-deployments. There were two reasons for this mistake: First, while the ignition switch was changed during MY 2007 to solve the low-torque problem,36 DeGiorgio had not informed anyone else at GM, and, contrary to GM policy, had not changed the part number.37 Worse, on several occasions DeGiorgio told airbag engineers that the switch had not been changed (except for an irrelevant change to the Page 4 of 15 Darmstadter, Cogent Arts & Humanities (2016), 3: 1134030 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311983.2015.1134030 anti-theft system).38 Consequently, the airbag engineers, believing the switch to be unchanged, ruled out the switch as a possible cause of the non-deployments.39 We can only speculate as to why DeGiorgio did not inform others of the change to the switch, did not change the part number, and misinformed the airbag engineers. DeGiorgio says he does not remember many of these events.40 Perhaps these actions were simply DeGiorgio’s attempt to cover up his disregarding the engineering committee’s decision not to change the switch. When DeGiorgio ordered the switch change, he may not have been aware of the connection to the airbag system. But it seems likely that when the airbag engineers asked DeGiorgio if the switch had been changed, they would have informed him of the switch’s suspected connection to the airbag non-deployments. Under these circumstances, DeGiorgio’s statement that the switch had not been changed put many lives in danger. 9. The light dawns In March 2012 airbag engineers examining a crashed Cobalt at a junkyard noticed that the ignition switch turned extraordinarily easily.41 The engineers had not brought any tools with them to measure the torque, but using a fish scale they purchased from a nearby bait and tackle shop (you can’t make this stuff up), they measured the torque for a number of Cobalt ignition switches in the yard. The torque on many switches was so low that they concluded that the key could turn to ACC if the car hit a pothole.42 The next day one of the engineers, John Dolan, searched the Cobalt warranty database and discovered the numerous customer complaints about the ignition switch turning to ACC.43 For the first time, the airbag engineers discovered what the switch engineers had known for years—that the Cobalt switch could be turned from RUN to ACC with minimal force. Dolan immediately elevated his concerns to more senior management.44 Two months later, in May 2012, the airbag engineers revisited the junkyard and tested some 40 Cobalts.45 (This time they brought a torque wrench.) They found that earlier Cobalts required lower torque, but this was also true of some MY 2007 and MY 2008 models.46 (It is not explained why some 2008 models, all of which should have had the redesigned switch, had low torque.) But the airbag engineers still struggled to put the pieces together. In spring or summer 2012, DeGiorgio and his supervisor again stated that there had been no changes in the switch that would affect the torque.47 And there remained the still unexplained fact that in about half of the non-deployments the SDM showed the key to be in the RUN position.48 In April 2013, plaintiff’s attorneys took apart pre- and post-2007 switches and showed GM’s lawyers just how they had been changed: A plunger in the later switches was longer by a bit over a millimeter (about 1/25th of an inch), just enough to significantly increase the torque.49 But it was another six months before Delphi could confirm that in ...
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Tutor Answer

School: Duke University




General Motors
Institution Affiliation



What changes need to be made at GM –their possible structure, culture and assumptions about
stakeholders (and perhaps have been made) to ensure that this mistake won’t be repeated.
Of the recent performance by General motor, the industry needs a defective ignition switch. The
ignition switches which were installed by Cobalt only allowed the turning off and on. The key
could be moved from the RUN position of the accessory position. The key fob was brushed by
the driver’s knee more so when the key was transferred to the ACC (accessory). The emphasize

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