GM: Failings of an Ignition Switch…and Corporate Responsibility

In 2001, engineers working at GM discovered a problem with the “passlock” system on the Saturn Ion during the vehicle’s pre-production phase. They diagnosed it as “low detent plunger force” and assumed that they had fixed the issue with a design change.

Case closed? Not by a long shot…not for another 13 years, in fact.

In 2003, a service technician driving an Ion reported that the car had suddenly stalled. The mechanic discovered that the car’s owner had several rings on the key ring and concluded that the weight had worn out the ignition switch. The worker replaced the ignition switch, and once again the problem was assumed fixed.

Two Recalls in a Matter of Weeks

On February 7, 2014, GM notified the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) of its decision to recall 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5 vehicles due to a faulty ignition switch that could either cause or contribute to the airbags not deploying. There was no mention of the Saturn Ion or—for that matter—the HHR, Solstice and Sky vehicles, also manufactured by GM and featuring similar key components.

On February 25, 2014, GM expanded its recall to include the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Solstice and 2007 Saturn Sky vehicles. The problem, as described by M. Carmen Benavides, Director of Product Investigations and Safety Regulations for GM, in a March 11 letter to the NHTSA is that the “ignition switch may unintentionally move from the ‘run’ position to the ‘accessory’ or ‘off’ position with a corresponding reduction or loss of power.”

Benavides added: “This risk may be increased if the key ring is carrying added weight or the vehicle goes off road or experiences some jarring event. The timing of the key movement out of the ‘run’ position, relative to the activation of the sensing algorithm of the crash event may result in the airbag not deploying, increasing the potential for occupant injury in certain kinds of crashes…Until the recall repairs have been performed, it is very important that customers remove all items from their key rings, leaving only the vehicle key. The key fob (if applicable) should also be removed from the key ring.”

Too Late

Unfortunately, GM’s warnings come too late for at least a dozen—or perhaps as many as 300+–people whose deaths have been linked to the faulty ignition switches. To date, 12 deaths have been linked to the ignition switch, but the Center for Auto Safety, an independent consumer watchdog group, announced yesterday that the number of fatalities may actually exceed 300 based on raw data culled from accident reports connected to two of the six models GM recalled.

Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director for the Center for Auto Safety, said that while the number of fatalities increased, GM and NHTSA delayed doing anything about fixing the problem. “NHTSA could and should have initiated a defect investigation to determine why airbags were not deploying in Cobalts and Ions in increasing numbers,” Ditlow said.

GM challenged those numbers, issuing a statement that “without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions”.

GM’s Long Knowledge of Problems

In 2005, employees at GM were receiving field reports of Chevrolet Cobalts losing engine power in which the key moved out of the “run” position when a driver accidentally contacted the key or steering column. In response to these reports, GM issued a bulletin to dealers warning that the Cobalt, along with the 2003-2006 Saturn Ion, 2006 Chevrolet HHR and 2006 Pontiac Solstice, were capable of having the key move out of the “run” position if a driver accidentally contacted the key or steering column. GM added that the concern was more likely to occur if the driver were short or had a large or heavy key chain. GM felt that its response to these reports had been wholly sufficient given widespread publicity of the problems described in the bulletin and because “the car’s steering and braking systems remained operational even after loss of engine power, and the car’s engine could be restarted by shifting the car into either neutral or park.”

In 2011, having received an increasing number of complaints, GM assigned an engineer to move forward with an investigation of front-end crashes in which airbags in the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and the 2007 G5 had not deployed. The investigation was extended to include Ion, HHR and Solstice vehicles as well. By GM’s own admission, the investigation did not include 2004 Saturn Ions resulting in fatalities. These crashes have since been identified.

Rather than issuing a recall of these vehicles based on the information that had been systematically gathered since 2005, GM decided in 2012 to investigate the problem further, this time studying a cross-section of steering columns and ignition switches from Cobalts, HHRs, Pontiac G5s and Saturn Ions, model years ranging from 2003 to 2010. At one point, GM field engineers met with an investigator to evaluate whether ignition switches in 2005-2007 Ions may have contributed to the airbag not deploying. This analysis surfaced two crashes in which engineers concluded that ignition switch performance could have resulted in air bag non-deployment. In relaying their awareness of these incidents, GM was quick to add: “These two crashes did not result in fatalities.”

In 2013, data gathered by an outside technical expert commissioned by GM showed that “ignition switches tested in early-model Ion and Cobalt vehicles did not meet GM’s torque specification”. This research, along with records provided by suppliers, led to a powwow of GM officials and engineers in late December 2013, where hard questions were raised about the need for a safety recall of the Cobalt and G5 vehicles.

Why not the Ion, HHR, Solstice and Sky models, also found to have similar problems? The answer is as simple as it is pathetic. GM officials have explained that the PowerPoint presentation shown during the December 2013 meeting dealt with the proposed recall of only the Cobalt and G5 models. Information regarding the results of field testing for the 2004-2007 Ion and 2006-2008 HHR were buried in “backup slides”. Unbelievably, Benavides—GM’s Director of Product Investigations and Safety Regulations—professes ignorance as to which backup slides were shown at the December meeting.

Another meeting of GM officials in January 2014 resulted in the February 7, 2014 safety recall of the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5.

Further Analysis Results in Second Recall

After the recall of February 7, GM  undertook additional analysis of the Ion, Solstice and Sky vehicles (was further analysis honestly needed at this point?), culminating in its decision to expand the safety recall to include the 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Solstice, the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion and the 2007 Saturn Sky. Dealers are to replace the ignition switches.

A Safety Record That Doesn’t Bear Mentioning

GM admits to identifying a total of eight frontal impact crashes in the United States involving the 2003-2007 Ion in which faulty ignition switches may have caused or contributed to the air bag not deploying. Of these eight crashes, four of them resulted in four fatalities (all involving the 2004 model) and six injuries of frontal occupants (model years 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007). It further acknowledges awareness of ignition switch problems possibly having caused or contributed to the non-deployment of airbags involving the 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR, resulting in three injures to front occupants. The company has said it is not aware of any frontal-impact crashes in the United States involving the 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice or 2007 Saturn Sky.

GM has acknowledged that it became aware of most of these crashes within two weeks of their occurrence and that employees investigated the underlying circumstances of these accidents, including, among other things, why the airbags had not deployed. Throughout this entire period, GM has said that it has been involved in claims and lawsuits regarding the Ion and HHR vehicles where non-deployment of airbags may have been caused by the ignition switches.

GM concludes its March 11, 2014 letter to the NHTSA with the following statement:

These 11 crashes in the United States are out of a total U.S. population of 748,024 vehicles subject to the Ion, HHR, Solstice and Sky recall. GM’s review of data and information relating to the recalled vehicles continues.”

That kind of statement, reeking of total corporate arrogance, is  nauseating in view of GM’s long knowledge of problems and its intolerable—if not, criminal—delay in issuing a recall. I wonder: would the same GM execs who brazenly downplayed the number of crashes caused by their negligence dare to make the same statement when facing the families and loved ones of the people who lost their lives or were  injured due to a faulty ignition switch…and the appalling failings of corporate conscience?

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