How one man triggered a GM airbag sensor recall
After years of seeing General Motors and federal safety regulators do nothing to address failing airbag sensors in the passenger seats of the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, Troy Lyman took up the matter himself.
Lyman is not an engineer, and his only automotive experience is a past job with a manufacturer of radio-controlled cars. He moderates online message boards for enthusiastic Solstice and Sky owners. He’s also a web developer at a California naval base that investigates wea-pons systems failures.
So in early 2016, Lyman began analyzing mounting complaints about the cars in the same detached, data-focused manner that his base uses for Tomahawk missiles.
“Research is kind of my thing,” Lyman said. “I just thought, “Enough. We need to get to the bottom of it.'”
The sensor determines whether to deploy the passenger-side airbag. Sensor failures, indicated by a dashboard warning light, can disable the airbag in a crash, but there have been no reports of accidents, deaths or injuries because of the problem.
The 67-page report Lyman produced and submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last spring — filled with photographs and technical illustrations, charts of publicly available GM warranty data and documentation of complaints NHTSA had already posted on its website — got results.
NHTSA quickly opened an investigation, and eight months later, GM issued a recall of 91,007 Solstice and Sky convertibles.
“I heard it went pretty high up within GM because I got some feedback at one point that they thought I was a lawyer for a client,” Lyman said. “Most of it was stuff they already had in their system. It was just a matter of putting it all together.”
The fact that neither GM — whose safety practices are being supervised by a federally appointed monitor — nor NHTSA took action until a member of the public forced the issue shows how much the industry still struggles to identify and fix defects, even with a renewed emphasis on safety and amid abundant evidence.
GM had recalled some Cadillac sedans for essentially the same problem in 2010, and other automakers, including BMW, Kia and Suzuki, had previously recalled sensors made by the same supplier. GM did not address the matter after its 2014 ignition-switch crisis prompted the automaker to unearth safety defects in tens of millions of other vehicles.
GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson said the issue involves making a judgment call about whether failing parts should be considered normal wear and tear and when the manufacturer has a responsibility to step in.
“Just because a system is safety-related doesn’t mean it’s warrantied forever,” Wilkinson said. “There haven’t been consistent rulings on these sensor systems. These issues with the sensor mats are not new, they’re not unique to these vehicles, and they’re not unique to GM.”
After a series of discussions with NHTSA, GM decided that the problem could be dangerous enough to require a recall, in part because the Sky and Solstice have only one row of seats.
“What triggers a safety recall is when there’s a pattern of defects and an unreasonable risk to safety,” Wilkinson said. “In the end, it came down to a decision by our safety and field action team. Because it was a two-seat vehicle, it was felt that there was significant risk if the mat malfunctioned, and one the customer cannot avoid by having the passenger sit in the back seat.”
A NHTSA spokeswoman said the agency is still investigating the matter and that public safety is its “top priority.”
In contrast to the ignition-switch defect, which was linked to 124 deaths, there are no known reports of serious injuries related to broken airbag sensor mats in the Sky and Solstice. And Wilkinson pointed out that drivers get a clear advance warning, with a light on the dashboard, when the problem happens in their car.
Kane: Why did GM wait to act?
Sean Kane, president of automotive watchdog Safety Research & Strategies, said any problem affecting airbag deployment should be classified as a safety issue and that GM should have issued a recall long ago. He said it’s a prime example of why NHTSA needs more resources to monitor automakers.
“All this enforcement activity, and we still have this kind of thing going on,” Kane said. “Do you really need the body count to get there? It’s hard to slough this one off because it’s a simple broken part. It wouldn’t have taken a lot of effort to see what was going on, and there’s plenty of precedent for these problems.”
The sensor mats are required under federal standards to avoid injuring children and small adults by the airbag’s deployment. They’re supposed to turn off the airbag when detecting a weight of less than about 110 pounds. But a malfunction can mean other passengers aren’t protected, and most cars, including the Sky and Solstice, have no way to manually switch the airbag on if the car thinks the seat is empty.
Long path to a recall
Source: GM, NHTSA, Automotive News research
The recall defect notice filed by GM includes a chronology that begins with Lyman’s petition reaching NHTSA in April 2016. But documents it submitted to the agency show that the automaker’s dealings with the Sky and Solstice passenger sensor mats go back a full decade.
Less than a year after GM started making the Solstice in 2005, several dealerships repaired the mats for free under warranty. A lemon-law attorney demanded a refund in October 2006, and at least three other law firms contacted GM about the same problem in the next couple of years.
GM bought back at least two 2007 Solstices from unhappy customers in 2007 and one 2007 Sky in 2008. All three cars were logged as being resold at auction.
The Sky belonged to Kenny Alley, who owns an auto-repair shop in Tallahassee, Fla. Alley had the car for a little over a year when GM agreed to buy it back after an exhaustive effort by the local Saturn dealership to determine why the “service airbag” light kept coming on.
He said GM flew in representatives from Saturn, the seat supplier and the airbag manufacturer, and a service invoice shows the dealership was able to replicate the problem on three other cars.
“They told us that they couldn’t figure out what was going on with it, they’d buy it back from us, and “Don’t buy another one,'” Alley said. “I loved the car. I hated to do that.
“But we couldn’t have something that wasn’t safe. I remember a guy came down to my shop and said, “That’s just the way it is.’ Well, we’re not going to have a car where the airbag’s not going to deploy with my wife sitting there.”
Lyman learned about the sensor problems from online forums. “The more miles and use these cars saw, the more failures that occurred.” Photo credit: GREG VOJTKO PHOTOGRAPHY
Diagnosing the problem
Lyman, who lives in Winchester, Calif., and goes by the name Robotech on the forums he frequents, has owned two Sky convertibles. He sold the first one after a year and later bought a used one that he still owns. But his crusade wasn’t sparked by personally experiencing a broken sensor mat in either car.
He learned about the problem when other members of SolsticeForum.com and SkyRoadster.com increasingly reported that the airbag warning light had come on starting in mid-2008.
“The more miles and use these cars saw, the more failures that occurred,” he said.
Eventually, Lyman realized that the low number of miles many Sky and Solstice owners put on their cars might have made it harder for GM to identify a trend in its warranty claims. Because they experienced less wear during the 36-month coverage period, the problem often cropped up later, when the owners were more likely to just ignore the warning light, have it fixed at an independent shop or balk at estimates that often ranged from $800 to more than $1,000.
Pontiac Solstice owner
Another frequent poster on the same forums, Mark Quinn, decided in mid-2013 to put his electrical engineering background to use. Quinn, who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and derived his screen name, TomatoSoup, from the inferno orange metallic color of his 2008 Solstice, located an owner in Israel who agreed to send him a failed mat for free.
He quickly diagnosed the problem in two U-shaped bends in the plastic that connects the sensors on one side of the mat to the other, severing the circuit printed on it. One of the connectors had snapped apart in the middle. That break was enough to turn off the airbag.
“There was this stress point at the back of the mat. Constant sitting basically broke it,” Quinn said. “It was obviously a design issue. It wasn’t up to the stress of people constantly getting up and sitting down. And it’s a safety issue clearly.”
Quinn reported his findings to his fellow owners. Over time, others with failed sensor mats tore apart the foam inside the seat after having it replaced and discovered the same thing.
Still no recall
Meanwhile, complaints on the message boards and to NHTSA grew.
In September 2013, a Connecticut man — his full identity is blacked out in the documents GM filed — wrote to NHTSA and the state’s attorney general, complaining of the $1,200 repair bill he incurred on his 2007 Solstice (though the dealership cut the amount in half as a goodwill gesture). The man said he had gotten a call from a GM representative “who basically stated that any recall decisions were to be initiated by the NHTSA.”
Two months later, a Nashville TV station reported on the widespread complaints and said it found 14 recalls across the industry since 2005 for failed passenger-seat sensor mats. GM told WSMV there was “no active safety investigation” into the problem and that customers were responsible for fixing it.
A NHTSA official responded to the Connecticut owner in January 2014, saying a review of the complaint database found “insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation or to initiate a recall.”
GM’s ignition-switch recalls started the following month, enveloping GM, NHTSA and much of the auto industry in a broad safety crisis. The Solstice and Sky were among the dozens of nameplates that GM recalled, but only for their ignition switches.
Ironically, the repair for that defect — aimed at ensuring the cars’ airbags would deploy properly in a crash — may have made the sensor-mat defect more widespread. Lyman said many Solstice and Sky owners began posting that the airbag warning light came on shortly after getting their car back from the dealership.
They came to the consensus that service technicians, needing to access the right side of the steering column, would frequently sit or kneel on the passenger seat, stressing the mat inside.
GM ended up issuing 84 recalls covering 30 million vehicles in 2014. It appointed a new global safety chief, Jeff Boyer, and tripled the size of its product-investigation team to root out unresolved problems. Some of the recalls were based on only a handful of complaints.
“We’re not only looking at frequency, but they have to be based on the seriousness of the potential defect as well,” Boyer said at the time. “We like to call them “buds of problems.’ By being proactive, we can understand what those issues are, do some analysis, and that may lead to future investigations.”
The Connecticut Solstice owner tried again, writing letters to both Boyer and GM’s newly minted CEO, Mary Barra, in April 2014, after seeing reports on the ignition-switch recalls. GM produced copies of the letters last year in response to NHTSA’s questions about the sensor mats.
“A major collision, without a properly operating airbag, could be fatal for the passenger,” the man wrote. “I feel that this is another issue that GM has ignored and declined to address.”
‘Look at data’
Lyman had no trouble finding complaints about airbags in the Solstice and Sky when he started querying NHTSA’s website in January 2016. But it took him more than a month — on top of his full-time job — to go through them all and eliminate ones that weren’t clearly related to the sensor-mat issue.
In the end, he documented 381 incidents of sensor-mat failures — more than four times as many as on the Cadillac CTS models that GM had recalled in 2010, even though the CTS was produced in much larger numbers. Lyman showed that there was one failure of a Sky or Solstice sensor mat reported for every 255 cars made, compared with one CTS failure per 2,208 cars covered by the recall.
The mats for the CTS, Solstice and Sky were made by Luxembourg-based IEE Automotive. IEE mats also were the subject of recalls by BMW in 2008, Kia in 2012 and Suzuki in 2013, all of which involved lower failure rates than the Solstice and Sky.
Lyman, 46, said he drafted the petition unemotionally, letting the data make the argument for him. That’s the strategy employed by his colleagues at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Corona, Calif., which functions as the U.S. Navy’s only independent analysis and assessment facility.
“Our whole motto is to proclaim the truth. Look at the data. We don’t care whose budget depends on it,” he said. “I looked at it and said, “Yeah, there’s a problem.’ That kind of presentation is what got their attention.”
After NHTSA opened its investigation, GM said it submitted documents and had additional discussions with the agency. Meanwhile, on Aug. 30, documents show, GM sent letters to 10 customers who had complained about the cost of the repair, but only one offered full reimbursement, in the amount of $669. Two offered a free extended-service contract. Two offered a $100 coupon toward future service work, and two offered only a free oil change. (Three said GM had been unable to contact the owner to follow up on the complaint.)
GM opened a formal product investigation in mid-December, shared preliminary results with NHTSA four days later and met with the agency again on Jan. 11. GM approved a recall on Jan. 19.
The automaker began notifying customers last week that it will replace the sensor mat for free. Any owners who paid to have the problem repaired can apply for reimbursement, as long as they have a receipt or documentation of the service performed, said Wilkinson, the GM spokesman. (Getting copies of that paperwork could prove challenging for some owners, given that all Saturn dealerships and some former Pontiac dealerships have since closed.)
“My goal was just to have NHTSA say, “Yeah, we need to investigate this,'” Lyman said. “To have an actual recall come out of it, I was ecstatic. That was mind-blowing.”