GM: Ignition problems first arose during testing in 2001
General Motors Co. got its first internal report on ignition-switch problems in small cars in 2001, while developing the Saturn Ion, the automaker said in a letter to U.S. regulators.
GM thought it had fixed the ignition-switch defect, the carmaker said in a supplemental report filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Wednesday. Then in 2003, service technicians found that an owner with a heavy key ring was experiencing engine stalls while driving. The flaw, linked to 12 deaths, led to the recall last month of 1.6 million cars.
The company filed the new information with NHTSA on what it did to address the problem to better explain why it expanded the recall to six U.S. models from two, roughly doubling the number of cars covered, Greg Martin, a spokesman for Detroit-based GM, said in an e-mail. The details concern the company's attempts to investigate ignition-switch issues in the Ion, the Saturn Sky, the Chevrolet HHR, and the Pontiac Solstice.
GM later used the same part in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5.
The 2001 testing failure disclosed by GM is earlier than when the carmaker said it learned of flaws in the Cobalt. Previously, the company said it had investigated in 2004 a consumer complaint and engineers were able to induce an engine stall. GM officials have said the problem was investigated at that time and no action was taken.
"We don't yet really know at what point this matter was escalated to past upper-level members of management, and how they dealt with it," said Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "It's also murky as to when current management learned about some of this."
The flaw caused ignition switches to slip out of position and cut off engine power and deactivate air bags.
Meanwhile, NHTSA, the U.S. Transportation Department's auto safety regulator, continued to come under criticism by lawmakers in Washington.
Sen. Patty Murray, chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, asked whether auto manufacturers take seriously existing laws that require early reporting, as well as the Transportation Department's administration of them.
"It raises a lot of questions why it took almost a decade for the automaker to report a serious defect," the Washington state Democrat said at a hearing Thursday with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Foxx repeated comments that acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman made Wednesday, that more information from GM earlier in the process would have "changed the outcome." Three crash investigations in cars that would later have been covered by the recall were inconclusive, he said.
GM shares fell 2.2 percent Thursday, to $34.09.
General Motors is recalling six cars marketed in the United States and two marketed elsewhere:
Saturn Ion, 2003-07
Chevrolet Cobalt, 2005-07
Chevy HHR 2006-07
Pontiac Solstice, 2006-07
Saturn Sky, 2007
Pontiac G5, 2007
Pontiac Pursuit, 2005-06
Opel GT, 2007