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story.lead_photo.caption Laura Christian of Harwood, Maryland, holds a picture of her daughter 16-year-old daughter Amber Marie Rose, who was killed on July 29, 2005 in a Chevy Cobalt with a defective ignition switch, while protesting in front of the General Motors world headquarters during the GM 2014 Annual Shareholders meeting June 10, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images/TNS) *FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY*

A year ago this month, a federal judge in New York dismissed criminal charges against General Motors.

The charges were in connection to GM's faulty ignition switches, a crisis that led to one of the deadliest vehicle defects and biggest recalls in U.S. history. As part of that dismissal, GM paid a $900 million fine and agreed to federal monitoring to recommend ways to improve safety.

GM says it adopted many of the recommendations, which are not public, but company spokesman Dan Flores said most of the changes the carmaker made came before the monitor's September 2015 appointment.

GM leaders insist the "don't tell" culture that led to the ignition switch crisis is in the rear-view mirror. Today, leaders encourage employees, dealers and suppliers to tattle whenever they see a possible problem.

"Openness and accountability are two things that are very different at GM now," Maryann Combs, GM's vice president of global vehicle safety, told the Free Press. "Everyone is encouraged to speak up on safety issues. They'll be followed up on and we'll take action."

The number of recalls GM has issued in recent years has steadily declined, but some safety experts warn that given the complex factors that prompt recalls, it is still too soon to conclusively say GM's cars are safer.

GM's Combs acknowledges that the company at times will have recalls involving a significant volume of vehicles. But GM is working to catch defects faster than in the past.

Cultural changes

GM's 2014 ignition switch crisis resulted in a recall of some 30 million small cars worldwide and is connected to at least 124 deaths and 275 injuries. That magnitude is why GM leaders want to keep it on employees' minds, so that it will not be repeated.

"Every day we make our safety processes better, but we don't want people to ever forget (the ignition switch crisis), and if you're new, you learn about it," Combs said of the scandal.

GM has made a series of changes since the 2014 ignition switch recall.

First, it created the vice president of global vehicle safety position, now occupied by Combs, to report to top GM leadership.

The role focuses on recalls and vehicle safety before, during and after the car is engineered, built and sold. Combs said her job is to communicate with GM leadership regularly to ensure that top brass, including the board of directors, won't be blindsided by a major defect again and that they are accountable for vehicle quality.

GM also made these changes:

 -- Created a safety field investigation team and a new, more comprehensive support organization to process and identify safety issues and fix them fast.

-- Started the Speak Up For Safety program to encourage all employees, dealers and suppliers to submit safety concerns to the field investigation team.

-- Added a systems engineering organization to oversee how each part impacts the whole vehicle.

-- Implemented new-employee orientation and annual training on improving safety.

The training also drills into new employees "how we want them to openly and freely speak up for safety," Combs said. "And we have the annual orientation to remind all employees of the ignition switch recall and to report safety concerns."

 

Speaking up

GM's Combs credits the Speak Up for Safety program as being key to reducing recalls after 2014. It lets employees submit a safety concern, anonymously or named, through email, an app or phone. From there, the safety field investigation team investigates it.

GM's new culture is embraced from the rank-and-file to top brass and anyone in between, said Combs.

In one instance, an assembly line worker at a GM plant noticed that a part appeared to be installed incorrectly. He submitted a "Speak Up" alert and GM investigated. Because of the early warning, GM had to repair fewer than 200 cars, said Combs.

In another example, in 2016, a GM engineer was in the backseat of a 2010 Chevrolet Impala sedan. His future father-in-law was driving and mentioned that the cluster gauges and radio had gone out. The engineer's future mother-in-law then lifted herself out of the passenger seat and then sat back down, saying when she did that, it usually turned the gauges back on.

The engineer knew something was wrong, especially since the passenger airbag light said the airbag was off, a possible safety issue. He filed an alert and GM investigated it.

GM found that in certain 2009-10 Impalas, the passenger seat frame can rub against the electrical wires within the seat's sensor system, chafing them so that the sensor does not recognize that the seat is occupied. That suppressed the front passenger air bag and, if the wire damage was severe enough to short the air bag fuse, it could result in the loss of all air bags and seat belt pretensioners. GM issued a recall, Combs said.

The effort is global. Last year, at a GM plant in Brazil, a security guard noticed a parked Chevrolet Spin, a small multipurpose vehicle, was on fire. The fire was extinguished and the car was handed over to the engineering team. GM determined a starter motor crank caused the fire when it short-circuited because water could get inside the underhood electrical center. The investigation resulted in a recall, and a logistics employee who reported the issue was recognized as a 2018 Safety Hero.

Combs said her team gets several hundred employee safety alerts each month and nearly 90% have a name attached.

"It speaks to the culture that they are not afraid to put their name on there and say I'm proud to tell you about a safety problem," said Combs. "It's a true cultural shift from the line worker to the dealers."

 

Silos to systems

GM has also taken a more complete view of its car design using systems engineering, said Combs.

Prior to the ignition switch crisis, GM engineers worked in silos where they had a mindset of, "I'm responsible for this part, someone else will handle another part and it's not my responsibility to connect the dots," said Combs. "Now, part of our process is to make sure we are looking at things from a system perspective."

That means if there is a problem with a wire harness, for example, employees must account for how that will affect other parts of the car and the entire system, said Combs.

For example, she said, that hypothetically faulty wire harness might cause problems with, say, the power steering. GM seeks to tackle that issue before building the car to avoid a recall later.

Fewer recalls, better safety

GM said its changes are working, but the data proving it is inconclusive, some experts said.

The number of recalls GM has issued in recent years is down, but the reported number of recalls or affected vehicles may be just one indicator of whether GM is improving its response to potential defects, said Robert Levine, senior manager in Stout Risius Ross in Royal Oak. Stout specializes in automotive recall data analysis and consulting.

"Other factors such as the size of the campaigns, the nature of the defects, the age of the vehicles, the number of non-recall service campaigns, open NHTSA investigations or other factors should also be considered to more fully understand a manufacturers' efforts to improve its response to potential safety defects," said Levine.

In GM's 2018 Sustainability Report, it listed its worldwide recall figures.

-- In 2014, GM issued 168 recalls on 29.7 million cars globally.

-- In 2015, GM issued 106 recalls on 7.5 million cars.

-- In 2016, GM issued 90 recalls on 9.4 million vehicles.

-- In 2017, GM issued 48 recalls on 2.1 million cars.

-- In 2018, GM issued 51 recalls on 4.2 million cars.

Stout uses the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data to calculate the recalls that have involved GM vehicles in the United States only. These U.S.-only numbers include the industry's Takata inflator recalls that impacted airbags across many manufacturers' vehicles.

-- 2014: 78 recalls of GM vehicles, 28 million vehicles affected

-- 2015: 44 recalls of GM vehicles, 10.4 million vehicles

--2016: 39 recalls of GM vehicles, 12 million vehicles

-- 2017: 18 recalls of GM vehicles, 1.6 million vehicles

-- 2018: 27 recalls of GM vehicles, 2.9 million vehicles

Levine said the NHTSA data show that GM is basically in line with other large manufacturers for the number of recalls issued after 2014.

"It's not too unusual to see recalls in the range of 20 to 40 recalls a year, especially for the large manufacturers who represent a significant portion of U.S. vehicle sales," said Levine.

"Certainly, 77 is unusual," he said, referring to GM's 2014 count. But about 12% of those recalls involved ignition-related defects, Levine said.

 

Improvement continues

A key indicator of how well a manufacturer is doing is the "completion percentage," which is the number of affected vehicles on the road that are actually fixed, Levine said.

"In terms of safety, you can think about how many vehicles potentially having a safety defect remain on the road," said Levine.

The industry average completion percentage for recalls initiated in 2014 and after, excluding the Takata inflator recalls, is about 78%, he said. GM's completion percentages since 2014 have been above the industry average and performing "pretty well," he said.

"What they are doing to get people into the dealerships for repairs is working," Levine said.

GM brands, for the most part, come in mixed on the J.D. Power U.S. Initial Quality Study. The study is based on responses from buyers of new 2019 model-year vehicles who were surveyed after 90 days of ownership. Out of 32 brands, Chevrolet was ranked sixth and Buick 11th. But GMC and Cadillac came in at 12 and 17 respectively.

The rankings are an improvement from 2015 when Chevrolet was seventh, Buick 11th, GMC 17th and Cadillac ranked 21st out of 33 brands.

J.D. Power also measures vehicle dependability during the past 12 months by original owners of three-year-old model-year vehicles. In its  2019 U.S. vehicle dependability study, GM did well: Chevrolet was ranked fourth, Buick fifth, but GMC and Cadillac still fell well below the industry average, at 22 and 23 respectively.

Combs said GM's safety initiatives will continue so as to never repeat another ignition switch-like defect. Each year, GM has "global safety week" when it reinforces the safety culture by reiterating to the company's workforce the importance of product and workplace safety. That's when more "safety hero" stories are shared. Global Safety Week is Sept. 9 this year.

"Safety is personally important to me," said Combs. "I live it every day with teenagers and little ones going in and out of the car. Not everyone knows how seriously we take this. We don't wait to see what's happening in the field. We're using our own data to say there might be a problem because we're on the road to zero crashes."

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