My Word: Keys, Switches and Megabucks

March 27, 2014 Comments (0)

By Denise McCluggage

Must be a guy thing. I've seen more than a few toss this handful of jangle on a cafe table with a cool pleasure and a metallic clatter that delights something deep inside them.

What is it about keys? I suspect the bearers carry every key they ever use from one for the tool chest in the pick-up bed to another for an obscure drawer in the cellar. Certainly a key to the riding mower and every car they own and some they don’t any more. The key that opens access to the spare tire on the wife's SUV -- either the wife or the SUV before the current one. And probably at least one key that doesn't open anything.

All these, and maybe a piece of bone wrapped in copper wire that serves as a key fob, dangles from the ignition as they drive. It's a wonder any ignition switch survives the first month of its use.

And now General Motors is in deep trouble over failed switches in some of their cars. As someone most certainly should be. The problem was known about for far too long -- a bulletin about them might date back to 2001. Certainly 2004. And the risks are serious. An engine suddenly dead in fast-moving traffic, power steering gone, power brakes -- not circumstances intuitively dealt with. And airbags, meant to be protective in emergencies however created, rendered useless by the absence of power.

The figures usually mentioned are 31 crashes, 12 deaths in Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Saturns. Other estimates run far higher.

The thought crossed my mind. Did someone say; "That isn't our fault. It's those fools with the heavy keys." But abused parts aren't supposed to fail any more than properly used parts. How could GM have let the problem go on so long? Sometimes that outfit can be so obtuse.

Law suits are lining up, possibly criminal as well as civil. Stock holders have filed theirs claiming GM's inaction damaged the value of their holdings.

Now because of GM declaring bankruptcy midstream in the matter car owners who suffered problems before 2009 cannot sue the "new" GM. Their problem is with the old GM which means problems lining up with a bunch of others before the bankruptcy court. Possibly GM could all but choose to pay in chalk and cheese, if at all. It becomes a public relations dance. They must look benign and properly contrite doing more than they "have" to.

But then again they could be up the creek far farther than anyone suspected. After all, if the government decides GM knew about the troubled switches and the company's possible liability before the bankruptcy then fraud might be involved. That's not a good word in a law court especially if someone is pointing at you.

And then something more ominous appears in a Georgia case in which a pediatric nurse died in 2010 in her five-year-old Cobalt on her rainy 29th birthday. She had the day before retrieved the car from her dealer where she had taken it because the engine had inexplicably died on her in traffic a couple of times.

GM settled this case. This was not one of the 12 deaths mentioned above but an additional one.

A particularly savvy lawyer for the young women's family had discovered that the ignition was indeed not on. The power had shut down. But more than that he investigated a number of Cobalts and discovered something that could really bode Ill for the General. He found that some Cobalts had beefed up parts in their switching mechanism. A definitely different switch. Yet the parts number was the same. Odd.

And GM had not informed any of the complaining car owners -- nor the government -- about this apparent effort to fix the switch. Something required by law. Was it a shhh, we'll make it go away move just a few guys at the plant would know about? Is that a yellow-feathers-on-the-chops way of dealing with a problem or what?

Is that a smart lawyer who did deep research to uncover the switch switcheroo. That's one thing for sure in all this tangled web.

Everyone watching what they call "Switchgate" notes familiar faces on the government side that just extracted 1.2 billion bucks from Toyota for that company's awkward handling of the so-called unintended acceleration claims against Toyota brands. A record fine. Observers see something in that range for GM -- or even more. In Toyota’s case no electronic flaw was ever determined to have caused the "runaway" cars. Maybe a misplaced floor mat under the accelerator.

GM might be more vulnerable. Toyota is known for keeping lots of cash on hand. GM just emerged from bankruptcy. And this might be another record fine. Could this send them back into bankruptcy? Could it change the whoops culture at GM? The new CEO Mary Barra is a change in the gender of top management. She will have to mean a major change in the way management handles problems too. It's not the switches, it's the way their failure was dealt with -- or not -- that really matters. Try two really different approaches for a start: transparency and speed. Trying to save money by not facing up to a problem can cost much more in dollars and in hard-to-restore reputation.

But about those keys. Can't all be guys driving those cars. Particularly those cars. So what's the appeal of all those keys in one weighty mass? Must be a metaphor in there somewhere.

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