GM pays record fine, tried to limit engineers' vocabulary

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Friday announced that GM has agreed to pay a record $35 million civil penalty and to take part in unprecedented oversight requirements as a result of findings from NHTSA’s investigation regarding the Chevrolet Cobalt and the automaker’s failure to report a safety defect in the vehicle to the federal government in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, reports have surfaced showing that GM management was telling its engineers back in 2008 on how to refer to potential safety problems. Over-the-top phrases like “death trap” were out, but so too were words like “defect,” for which the engineers should substitute euphemisms.

The defect addressed in the Friday announcement resulted in the nondeployment of airbags in certain Chevrolet Cobalt and other GM models. The Department of Transportation said that as part of the Friday agreement, set forth in a Consent Order signed with NHTSA, GM would make significant and wide-ranging internal changes to its review of safety-related issues in the United States, and to improve its ability to take into account the possible consequences of potential safety-related defects.

“Safety is our top priority, and today’s announcement puts all manufacturers on notice that they will be held accountable if they fail to quickly report and address safety-related defects,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “While we will continue to aggressively monitor GM’s efforts in this case, we also urge Congress to support our GROW AMERICA Act, which would increase the penalties we could levy in cases like this from $35 million to $300 million, sending an even stronger message that delays will not be tolerated.”

With respect to instructions to engineers, as reported in Politico, “A PowerPoint presentation included in the company’s consent agreement with NHTSA unveiled Friday shows the nation’s largest automaker told engineers to avoid terms both absurd and mundane for fear of e-mails leaking to the media or regulators.”

Writes Politico, “Instead of 'defect,' [engineers] were supposed to say a part 'does not perform to design.'”

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, “Even as G.M. acknowledged that it knew about the defect for more than a decade, it has insisted that work on defective ignition switches was limited to a handful of midlevel employees.

“But a review of internal documents, emails and interviews paint a different picture, showing that high-ranking officials, particularly in GM’s legal department…acted with increasing urgency in the last 12 months to grapple with the spreading impact of the ignition problem.”

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