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 weapons 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.