General Motors has included the Chevrolet Impala (2000-2014), historic staple in its fleet, on its list of cars recalled for a faulty ignition switch. Nevertheless, the automaker has yet to add the Impala to the “protocol” list of cars for which it has agreed to pay compensation in injury accidents involving the defective switch. Why the Impala – along with several other cars – is not included on this “protocol” list of cars is a mystery. The Impala appears to have the very same problems as the cars for which GM indicated on June 30, 2014, that it will compensate for injury accidents – the Chevrolet Cobalt (2005-2010) and HHR (2006-2007); the Pontiac G4 (2005-2006), G5 (2007-2010), Pursuit (2005-2006), Solstice (2006-2010); the Daewoo G2X (2007); Opel/Vauxhall GR (2007); and Saturn Ion (2003-2007) and Sky (2007-2010). The Impala even appears to have an additional airbag defect issue which might make the car an even greater liability than the other cars which GM has decided to include in the initial settlement protocol.
Air Bag Failure in Fatal Impala Crashes
A safety group announced in April that an air bag defect is connected to deadly accidents in the GM Chevrolet Impala.
The Center for Auto Safety, in a letter to U.S. regulators penned by Donald Friedman, a former GM researcher who is now a safety consultant on the Center’s staff, said a software problem in the Impala can misread a passenger’s weight and disable the front air bags. Friedman is asking the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to open a defect investigation into Impalas made from 2003-2010.
Friedman said at least 143 deaths have resulted from frontal crashes in which an Impala’s air bag failed to deploy. He cited information collected from NHTSA’s fatal-crash database. In 98 of those cases, people killed were wearing seat belts.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based Center, said, “This is a design defect in every GM vehicle with the flawed algorithm.” The Center has tracked recalls and defects since its creation in 1970. Ditlow added, however, that because NHTSA’s databases don’t pinpoint the cause of air-bag failures, it is difficult to estimate how many cases can be tied to a flawed algorithm.
Broad Industry Problem with Air Bags
The Center also questions whether broader problems exist in regard to air bag sensors throughout the automotive industry.
In May 2014, Nissan Motor Co. recalled 989,701 vehicles, including its upscale 2014 Altima sedan, due to its software’s potentially reading an occupied passenger seat as empty, hence stifling its deployment in the event of a crash. So GM isn’t alone with these problems. U.S. investigations in recalls the past two years over air-bag failures also involve Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Volvo Cars and Chrysler Group LLC products.
Advances in air bags in the last dozen years to meet toughening U.S. regulations have saved many lives, but the more sophisticated technology has added engineering challenges that may be meeting a point of diminishing returns.
Cause of Failures still Undetermined
Friedman, the NHTSA’s acting administrator, told Congress in April that the agency has not been able to determine how air bags in Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions with the defective ignition switches could deactivate with the cars moving. Meanwhile, NHTSA is asking automakers for more algorithm information regarding how air bags deploy with a loss of power.
Impala not alone with Air Bag Problems
One central question is whether GM’s electronic algorithms might inhibit air bag deployment, and whether passengers being bumped from their seats can fool the sensors.
Friedman also stressed that other automakers could be using the same parts as the Impala.
“There’s a very serious indication something is wrong,” said Friedman. He also testified in several court cases ten years ago regarding rollover accidents that crushed roofs. At that time, he pressured NHTSA to adopt a stronger safety standard.
When he was a GM researcher, Friedman helped transfer the automaker’s technology to the Lunar Rover. He has spent the past 30 years consulting on product-liability cases.
Texas Crash Testimony
Friedman was hired by lawyers working for the family of Aurora Martinez after she was involved in a crash that killed her husband in Texas. On April 9, 2011, Ms. Martinez’ 2008 Impala was struck by an SUV on a highway on the passenger side, where her husband, Roberto, was riding. The sedan vaulted one road barrier and struck another head-on.
Mr. Martinez’ passenger-side air bag never deployed, and he died of his injuries. The driver’s air bag deployed, though Aurora Martinez was severely injured.
Friedman used data from the car’s data recorder to show the passenger air bag failed to deploy; it read Roberto Martinez as a small adult, though he weighed 170 pounds. Friedman said that the car’s being briefly bounced and lifted reduced the sensor reading.
Friedman said NHTSA has been in touch with him about the air-bag petition and how he arrived at his conclusions. NHTSA has asked for data and pictures of the accident he studied.
Air Bags Now Better or Worse?
The first generation of air bags sometimes deployed with such force that nearly 300 people were killed, primarily children or small adults in the front seat.
With a mandate from NHTSA that took effect in September 2003, bag makers re-tooled systems so the bags would deploy with less power. Now, front seat weight sensors are supposed to turn the air bag off in proper circumstances. A warning light on the dashboard indicates (by weight), if there’s a child in the seat. Cars now also detect whether occupants are wearing their seat belts; and bags deploy at a lower force for unbelted occupants.
An Arlington, Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study in 2010 compared fatality rates among cars with air-bag technology developed to pass a tougher NHTSA crash test with the previous generation of devices. It found, shockingly, more deaths in cars with the newer designs, especially among people wearing seat belts.
One explanation – published in the institute’s “Status Report” newsletter – hazarded the guess that the devices’ algorithms resulted in some air bags not deploying when they could have helped lessen injury.
Impala Air Bag Failures Deadly
It was a surprising finding. “The newest air bags appear to provide suboptimal protections for drivers who buckle up,” Adrian Lund, the institute’s president, said then.
Later, a September 2013 analysis by NHTSA, which used a broader sample of crash data than the 2010 study, showed no statistical difference in fatality rates between the older and newer types of air bags.