GM’s Decade of Delay: Why did the ignition switch recall take so long? | Causes, Not Just Cases®

According to the Highway Safety Act of 1970, motor vehicle manufacturers must report a safety-related defect to the NHTSA—as well as to owners, purchasers and dealers—within five working days of noticing the issue.

GM took more than a decade.

As early as 2003, consumers were reporting issues with vehicles that were “unexpectedly stalling or turning off when going over bumps or when the key was bumped.” Extra weight on the key chain was cited as another potential problem. What’s more, the comments from both consumers and GM technicians indicated the ignition switch as the likely source of the problem.

So why did it take GM 10 years to report the issue to the NHTSA and recall 2.6 million vehicles?

That’s a question that will hopefully be addressed soon, not only by the class action lawsuits filed by Motley Rice and by others against GM in federal court concerning the defect, but also by the investigations being conducted by the U.S. Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a select group of state attorneys general. And what happens here will likely have a resounding impact in the auto manufacturing industry at large.

In the meantime, GM has a lot of explaining to do as an exploration by the U.S. Committee on Energy and Commerce recently found evidence of issues with GM’s ignition switch as early as 2001. In a presentation to the Oversight and Investigation subcommittee in March 2014, the Committee reviewed each step taken by GM before the recalls were finally issued and concluded with the question, “Why did GM not identify a safety defect and order a recall…until February 2014? What prevented GM from identifying this defect sooner?”

Some of the facts revealed by the committee’s report include:

2001: A pre-production report for the 2003 Saturn Ion shows issues with the ignition switch, citing “low contact force and low detent plunger force.” The report states that the problem was resolved by a design change.

2002: Delphi, GM’s ignition switch supplier, tells Committee staff that GM approved the switch, even though sample testing shows torque below GM’s original specifications.

2004: GM examines a complaint with the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that the “vehicle can be keyed off with knee while driving.”

July 2005: A 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt crashes in Maryland, killing the driver. An investigation indicates that the “vehicle power mode status” was in “accessory.”

October 2006: A 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt crashes in Wisconsin, killing two passengers. A 2007 report states that the airbags did not deploy “possibly due to…power loss due to the movement of the ignition switch just prior to impact.”

February 2009: GM opens an investigation into the 2010 Cobalt, resulting in a redesign of the ignition key.

April 2009: A 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt crashes in Pennsylvania, killing the driver and front seat passenger. A 2010 crash report found that the airbags did not deploy, but they couldn’t determine why. The vehicle power mode status was in “accessory.”

2011-2012: Tests are conducted on 44 vehicles across a range of make and model years. Results show the majority of tested ignition torques are below GM specifications. GM engineers are assigned to find the root cause of engineering or technical problems.

April 2013: An outside engineering firm investigates the ignition switch and finds that those installed in early model Cobalt and Ion vehicles do not meet GM torque specifications and a change to the switch made years later was the likely reason for the variance.

February 2014: GM announces its first recall of 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5s to address the faulty ignition switch. Later that same month, GM adds the Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Ion and Saturn Sky vehicles to this recall.

March 2014:  GM expands the ignition recall again to include additional model years of the same vehicles. GM also initiates the recall of certain model year Chevrolet Malibu, Chevrolet HHR, Chevrolet Cobalt, Saturn Aura, Saturn Ion and Pontiac G6 vehicles for power steering issues.

May 2014: GM announces additional recalls for defects including faulty seat belts, transmissions, and air bags as well as potential fire issues and wiring problems.

This year alone, there have been 29 separate recalls of more than 13.8 million GM vehicles in the United States and 15.8 million GM vehicles worldwide.

Is NHTSA Oversight Too Little, Too Late?

As GM’s history of decision-making is picked apart over the next several months, the NHTSA isn’t giving the manufacturer a chance to make another potentially fatal production error. In a consent order signed on May 16 between GM and NHTSA, GM will have to submit to several increased safety guidelines and checkpoints involving the NHTSA’s supervision and approval. The degree to which GM is being supervised going forward is, according to the NHTSA, “unprecedented.”

Included in the safety guidelines of the consent were orders to:

  • Provide reports on the ignition recall every two weeks for the first six months, and once a month until 2017.
  • Discuss hypothetical safety defect scenarios with the NHTSA and discuss any necessary improvements.
  • Discuss any “actual or potential safety-related defect issues” with the NHTSA once a month for at least a year.
  • Every month, provide the NHTSA with a list of every safety-related issue under review.
  • Improve employee training and documentation of safety issues, including proper reporting that does not dilute the safety message.
  • Not wait to recommend or conduct a safety recall because the precise cause of a defect has not been identified.

Where does this leave us? If we believe the reports, this collaboration with NHTSA will usher in a new era of stringently enforced safety in future GM vehicles. In fact, the degree to which the NHTSA is involving themselves with the current and future safety of GM vehicles may hopefully set a safety standard not only for GM but for every car manufacturer going forward.

But regardless of future results, GM has a lot more explaining to do as to why they kept the ignition switch defect secret for so long.  Happy Memorial Day weekend, and be careful out there.