WASHINGTON - General Motors employee Laura Andres was driving a 2006 Chevrolet Impala home when she hit a bump in the road. The engine stalled, and the Impala came to a dead stop. The car behind her had to swerve to avoid a collision. Andres took the car into the shop, and a technician identified the most likely culprit as a faulty ignition switch.
In an e-mail to 11 GM colleagues, she wrote: "I think this is a serious safety problem ... I'm thinking big recall."
Andres wrote the e-mail Aug. 30, 2005. The Impala was finally recalled Monday -- eight and a half years after she sounded the alarm. GM said a key with too much weight on it can cause the switch to move from "run" to "accessory" and stall the engine.
Still, Andres warning came back to haunt GM Wednesday in a congressional hearing into faulty ignition switches that have been linked to 13 deaths and have forced GM to recall 2.6 million small cars, such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., confronted GM Chief Executive Mary Barra with Andres' e-mail.
"I was driving 45 mph when I hit the pothole and the car shut off," Andres wrote. "I don't like to imagine a customer driving with their kids in the back seat, on I-75 and hitting a pothole, in rush hour traffic."
Upton asked Barra what GM would do with such an e-mail if it were sent today. Barra said the company would "take immediate action" if a faulty part caused the car to stall. She said GM's worldwide recall Monday of 3.4 million large cars, including 2006-2014 Impalas, showed how the company now reacts.
It was less responsive in 2005. Andres' warning was brushed off by GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio, who replied that he had recently driven an '06 Impala and "did not experience this condition." He also noted that the Impala had "a completely different column/ignition switch" than the ones that were causing the Pontiac Solstice and other small GM cars to stall.
An internal GM investigation, conducted by former prosecutor Anton Valukas and released to the public June 5, concluded that DeGiorgio alone approved the use of switches in the small cars that didn't meet company specifications. It also found that years later he ordered a change to a new switch without alerting anyone else at GM. DeGiorgio was one of 15 GM employees dismissed in connection with the recall.
GM declined to disclose any information about Andres' position with the company when she wrote the email.