Dangerous Product Update: GM Faces Tough Questions Over Its Small Car Ignition Defect

Dubbed a “major embarrassment” to General Motors by The New York TimesMary T. Barra, GM’s new chief executive, apologized for the tardy recall in February of Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles due to faulty ignition switches. Several other models, including Saturn Ion and Saturn Sky, are involved in the recall. An apology provides little solace to the families of more than 300 persons who have died in these vehicles when the air bags failed to deploy. GM initially reported that 12 deaths might be linked to the faulty switch that can move from “run” to “off” while the vehicle is in motion. A bump of a key ring, a heavy key ring, or a rough road can jostle the ignition switch out of “run” position, which causes a sudden loss of power where the driver loses function of power steering and the airbags are disabled.

 As early as 2004, GM knew it had a problem with the Cobalt. In 2005, a 16 year old girl was fatally injured in a Cobalt where the airbags did not deploy when the car crashed into a tree. This was apparently the first death related to the defect, and GM knew about it. Not only was GM aware of deaths related to this defect, NHTSA, the federal safety regulators who are supposed to protect the consumer, is also culpable. NHTSA investigators took a close look at the cause of at least two Cobalt crashes that raised the possibility of defect, but failed to open a broader investigation. The deadly defect was swept under the carpet while lives continued to be lost in fatal car crashes.

 It was not until 2013, nearly 10 years after its first awareness of the defect, that GM hired an outside engineering firm which pointed to the ignition problem cited in a service bulletin sent to dealers in 2005. Unable to muster a vigorous defense, GM offered a second apology. Too little too late.