Bug in the Bag: GM Recalls Vehicles for Software Defect

Michael GrossmanSeptember 12, 2016 5 minutes

General Motors is in trouble again. I'd tell you to buckle up, but because of poorly written computer code, even that might not be enough.

GM issued a recall of approximately 4.3 million cars, trucks, and vans worldwide after chasing down a bug in their software that can prevent the vehicles' airbags from deploying during a collision. Furthermore, the defect may keep seat belts from locking up during those same crashes. Three injuries and a fatality have already been linked to this problem.

GM's recall applies to vehicles from 2014-2017, according to the statement released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

"In the affected vehicles, certain driving conditions may cause the air bag sensing and diagnostic module (SDM) software to activate a diagnostic test...During this test, deployment of the frontal air bags and the seat belt pretensioners would not occur in the event of a crash."

Both of the described safety measures depend on software monitoring the car's condition. In the event of a crash, the vehicle obviously decelerates at a rapid rate. The car senses this and triggers safety countermeasures, which engage in the fractions of a second available before a motorist is critically injured by the inertial forces at work.

How Significant Is the Risk?

  • A crash ordinarily triggers the explosive propulsion of gas into the car's airbag, inflating it rapidly toward the driver and passenger and preventing their collision with the car's dashboard or steering wheel. The airbag sensing and diagnostic module (SDM), essentially the car's "black box," would log this information for diagnostic study at a later time when trying to piece the elements of the crash together.
  • In the same circumstances, a separate but lesser-known reaction happens with a motorist's seatbelt. Given the same rapid deceleration that triggers the airbag expulsion, seat belt "pretensioners" jump into action. The devices trigger another small explosion that drives a piston in the seat belt assembly, immediately tightening all the slack in the seatbelt to lessen the occupants' forward momentum.
Seatbelt pretensioner
Basic model of a functional seat belt pretensioner at work.

Between these two measures, most of the forward momentum that inevitably occurs in a frontal collision is restricted or even eliminated. Because of the counter-forces exerted by the rapid seat-belt tightening and airbag deployment, many motorists end up with cracked ribs, bruising, black eyes, or other issues. Without exception, these injuries are preferable to the devastating or even fatal damages they would sustain from colliding unhindered with the vehicle's steering column.

Here's where we see the major issue presented in this recall. If the airbag SDM enters "diagnostic mode," as claimed by the NHTSA, it will stop providing active real-time protection to a vehicle's occupants. During diagnostics, the car's "brain" will turn its gaze inward to make sure that its processes are functioning correctly--ironically stopping those processes from working. With airbags and seat belts offline, any collision is exponentially more dangerous.

Which GM Vehicles Are Affected?

General Motors owns GMC, Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac. According to the NHTSA report, vehicles from every company are affected:

  • GMC: (2014-17) Sierra (2015-17) Yukon, Yukon XL, Sierra HD
  • Chevrolet: (2014-16) SS, Spark EV (2014-17) Corvette, Trax, Caprice, Silverado (2015-17) Tahoe, Silverado HD, Suburban
  • Buick: (2014-16) LaCross, (2014-17) Encore
  • Cadillac: (2015-17) Escalade, Escalade ESV

GM has (quite rightly) assumed the burden of notifying the owners of the faulty vehicles, and will update the bugged software for free.

GM Is Not Exactly on a Roll Lately.

This is the second major recall General Motors has faced in two years. In 2014, this company--the third-largest automaker in the world, mind you--recalled 2.6 million vehicles to repair faulty ignition switches that were responsible for 124 deaths and 275 injuries. They are currently the defendant of a massive nationwide liability lawsuit related to the flawed ignition switch.

It's great that GM is working on additional technologies to keep accidents like leaving a kid in the back seat of a hot car from happening. Given that these new measures are also predicated on computer code, though, this new SDM recall certainly raises concerns about other electronically-based safety innovations rolling out under their name.

Can An Attorney Help Me Sue if I'm Injured?

If you drive one of the above models and your safety countermeasures do not engage when you crash, you may have an actionable claim against GM for your losses. The area of the law that covers defective products is referred to as products liability law.

As the provider of a consumer good, General Motors is bound by a duty to sufficiently test that product to remove as much conceivable risk from the equation as possible before allowing end-users to buy it. When situations like the ignition switch or the software bug are discovered in products that span three years of release, that suggests that one of a couple of things has happened:

  1. The company failed to adequately test their product and released it to the market before it was ready.
  2. The company knew about the possibility of the failure, but considered it so statistically unlikely that they released the product and didn't warn anyone.
  3. The company knew about the failure, gauged it to be a serious threat, but recognized it as financially damaging if anyone found out, so they chose to ignore it and didn't disclose the risk.

It's a little hard to believe the first option, since GM has been in the game for a very long time and by now should be acutely aware of how to test their vehicles and adjust them as is necessary. The second and third options, though, happen virtually every day in the consumer-goods industry, from baby formula to flak jackets. Foreknowledge of risk is routinely revealed through the subpoena of internal company memoranda. It's important to say that I don't know that's what happened here, and I'm not directly alleging any such thing. I'm only saying that there is historical precedent of other companies acting in a similar fashion.

The presence of this software bug in several generations of vehicles suggests lax testing. This is a violation of GM's duty to release vehicles that keep their drivers secure, and a breach of GM's contract with their buyers. Because of that breach, their negligence could be established as a causal source of a crash victim's damages. After all, had the airbag deployed and/or the seatbelt appropriately retracted, the motorist might have been spared some of the injuries he or she suffered.

A good products liability attorney will demonstrate that the software failure prevented the safety measures from engaging at the time of an accident. This should be fairly straightforward, as the airbag SDM will most likely have a log entry for the time that the diagnostic began to run. Once this is demonstrated, a plaintiff should be entitled to compensation for injuries, medical expenses, lost wages, and other potential damages.

In fact, in cases such as this, retaining an attorney is crucial to preserve evidence. While we have not had an experience with GM employing this tactic, we have seen in numerous cases over the years where a defendant gains access to the ECM and destroys evidence that is crucial to an injured person's case. While there are other forensic means to prove that airbags and seat belt suppressors did not engage, they are more difficult and subject to debate than the smoking gun that is the vehicle's malfunctioning computer.

It is my sincere hope that the automotive industry will take heed of these reports and learn a lesson about releasing multi-ton explosion-powered machines before they're as safe as they can reasonably be.