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Documents Show GM Knew About Deadly Ignition Switch Defect

General Motors engineers knew that the ignition switch in certain models of GM’s small cars had problems as early as 2001 but repeatedly decided not to do anything about it, according to recently released confidential documents.

The recall by GM has been expanded to replace defective ignition switches in 2.6 million cars.  The defective ignition switches can cause cars to turn off while in motion, disabling braking, steering and airbags and causing car accidents. They have been linked to at least 13 deaths.

The recall includes all model years of the Chevrolet Cobalt, Chevrolet HHR, Saturn Ion, Saturn Sky, Pontiac G5 and Pontiac Solstice from 2003 through 2011.

According to a Reuters story, the confidential documents also show that Delphi Automotive, a parts supplier, tested the switches and determined that they did not meet GM’s specifications. The documents were released by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which is investigating the faulty switches.

The problem with the switches is that they don’t have enough torque to prevent them from moving from the “run” position, in which the engine is on, to the “accessory” position, in which it is turned off. The parts involved are called a detent plunger and spring, and they keep the ignition key in position when the car is running.

The documents released by Congress show that a GM engineer first realized there was a problem with the ignition switches in 2001, when he was test-driving a prototype of the 2003 Saturn Ion. An internal memo identified the problem as “low contact force and low detent plunger force.” The faulty parts were replaced with newer parts and the case was closed in November 2001.

But that wasn’t the end of the problems with the ignition switch. The GM documents show that when Delphi sent a batch of switches to GM in December 2001, it noted that many of the switches did not meet GM’s torque specifications. GM nonetheless gave the parts the green light in 2002, and the first Ion was completed in August 2002.

By 2003, GM was monitoring customer complaints about the Ion’s engine stalling but noted that “technicians are rarely able to duplicate the concern.”

In 2004, while GM was developing the Chevy Cobalt, an engineer testing the vehicle noted that “the driver’s knee bumped the key in such a manner as to turn off the ignition.” The documents show that engineers considered several remedies but ultimately concluded that the tooling cost was too high and the fix would take too long.  GM engineers closed the case in 2005, saying that there was not an acceptable “business case” for the solutions.

The problems persisted. GM asked Delphi engineers to analyze the switch in 2005.

The same year, GM investigated the faulty switch and recommended giving car owners a key insert. It did not recommend redesigning the part because that would cost too much, according to the documents. In fact, one group of GM engineers discussed postponing a redesign until 2008 because of a $400,000 retooling cost, plus 90 cents per car.

GM ultimately did redesign the switch and began installing it on cars in the fall of 2007.  But because the new switch carried the same part number as the old one, it became difficult for investigators in later years to analyze and pinpoint the problem the cars were having.

The congressional committee has questioned GM’s chief executive officer about the switch defects but has yet to determine when GM’s top executives learned of the problem.

At issue is GM’s response to the problem and lack of adequate public warning of the hazard. The U.S. Justice Department has begun an investigation.

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