Niagara Gazette

May 1, 2014

TOM'S CORNER: GM's ignition switch recall update

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It’s no secret that GM has had problems managing the recall of vehicles with faulty ignition switches. In February GM issued sweeping recalls for several models suspected of having a faulty ignition switch that automatically turns the car’s engine off and prevents air bags from deploying — while the car is in motion. At the core of the problem is a weak spring in the vehicle’s ignition switch. Because this part produces weaker spring tension, ignition keys in the cars may turn off the engine if shaken with just the right downward pressure on the key ring.

The history of this defect is long and winding, and it presents many questions about how GM handled the situation from the outset. The main questions being asked are: How long did the company know about the problem? Why did the company not inform NHTSA of the problem sooner? Why weren’t recalls done sooner? And did GM continue to manufacture models using the faulty part knowing full well that the defect existed? All excellent questions, that I’m sure lawyers will be asking in courts across the country as this thing grows legs and takes on a life of its own.

I did some research and came up with a timeline of events leading up to the recall.

• 2001: GM detects the defect during pre-production testing of the Saturn Ion.

• 2003: A service tech closes an inquiry into a stalling Saturn Ion after changing the key ring and noticing the problem was fixed.

• 2004: GM recognizes the defect again as the Chevy Cobalt replaces the Cavalier.

• March 2005: GM rejects a proposal to fix the problem because it would be too costly and take too long.

 May 2005: A GM engineer advises the company to redesign its key head, but the proposal is rejected.

• December 2005: GM sends dealers a bulletin stating the defect can occur when “The driver is short and has a large and/or heavy key chain. The customer should be advised of the potential problem and remove unessential items from their key chain.”

• July 29, 2005: Maryland resident Amber Marie Rose, 16, tragically dies when her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt crashes into a tree after the ignition switch shuts down the car’s electrical system and the air bags fail to deploy when the vehicle crashes.

• December 2005: GM issues a TSB (Technical Service Bulletin) addressing the problem, but does not issue a recall.

 March 2007: Safety regulators inform GM of the issues involved in Amber Rose’s death; neither GM nor the NHTSA open a formal investigation.

• April 2007: An investigation links the fatal crash of a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt in Wisconsin to the ignition switch defect, but regulators do not conduct an investigation.

• September 2007: An NHTSA official emails the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) recommending a probe into the failure of air bags to deploy in crashes involving Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, prompted by 29 complaints, four fatal crashes and 14 field reports.

• Nov. 17, 2007: The ODI at NHTSA concludes that there is no correlation between the crashes and the failure of air bags to deploy, ending the proposed probe.

 June 1, 2009: GM files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is important because GM is asking for protection against claims arising from this defect before this date. Bottom line; GM is asking to be legally excused of responsibility for death and injuries attributed to this defect prior to the bankruptcy date. The timeline continues…

• February 2010: NHTSA again recommends a probe looking into problems with air bags in Cobalts; ODI again decides that there is no correlation and drops the matter.

• 2012: GM identifies four crashes and four corresponding fatalities (all involving 2004 Saturn Ions) along with six other injuries from four other crashes attributable to the defect.

 June 2013: A deposition by a Cobalt program engineer says the company made a “business decision not to fix the problem,” raising questions of whether GM consciously decided to launch the Cobalt despite knowing of an ignition switch defect.

• End of 2013: GM determines that the faulty ignition switch is to blame for at least 31 crashes and 13 deaths.

• Jan. 15, 2014: Mary Barra becomes CEO of GM and the first woman to run a major automaker.

 Jan. 31, 2014: Barra learns of the ignition switch defect, according to GM.

• Feb. 7, 2014: GM notifies NHTSA “that it has determined that a defect, which relates to motor vehicle safety, exists in 619,122 cars.”

• Feb. 13, 2015: GM officially recalls 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5s.

• Feb. 25, 2014: GM adds 748,024 more vehicles to the recall.

• March 10, 2014: GM hires two law firms to look into the recall internally. Anton Valukas, who investigated Lehman Brothers after the firm’s 2008 collapse leads the investigation.

• March 17, 2014: Barra states in a video apology that “something went very wrong” in GM’s mishandling of the crisis. She says the company expected about $300 million in expenses in the current quarter to cover the cost of repairing the vehicles.

• March 18, 2014: GM appoints a new safety chief.

• March 20, 2014: The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations schedules a hearing for April 1, titled “The GM Ignition Switch Recall: Why Did It Take So Long?”

• March 28, 2014: GM recalls an additional 824,000 vehicles stating ignition switches could be faulty.

• April 1, 2014: GM hires Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney specializing in corporate payouts, as a consultant “to explore and evaluate options” in the automaker’s response to families of the victims involved in the recall.

• April 1-2, 2014: Barra and NHTSA Acting Administrator, David Friedman testify at House and Senate hearings on the handling of the recall. Barra apologizes to family members whose loved ones have died from the defect.

• April 3, 2014: Deadline for GM to respond to 107 questions from NHTSA.

• April 11th and 12th: GM recalls the following vehicles for defective ignition switches:

Chevrolet: ‘05 – ‘10 Cobalt, ‘06 – ‘11 HHR

Pontiac: ‘07 – ‘10 G5, ‘06 – ‘10 Solstice, and ‘05 – ‘06 Pursuits sold in Canada

Saturn: ‘03 – ‘07 Ion, ‘07 – ‘10 Sky.

Total vehicle population comes to over 2.2 million vehicles and the saga continues as more info comes to light surrounding this problem. Lawsuits & claimants are popping up all over the nation, GM shareholders have launched a suit against the company charging it with lost profit as a result of bad press and recall mismanagement.

There, you have the facts as they are, now draw your own conclusions…

‘Til next time ... Keep Rollin’.

“America’s Car Show” with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.