General Motors knew of an issue with its ignition switch several years before it had previously acknowledged. The company said in a federal filing Wednesday that it discovered an issue with the Saturn Ion ignition switch in 2001 during pre-production development. General Motors has previously said it first learned of ignition switch issues in 2004. The document said a 2001 internal GM report noted “an ignition switch design change had solved the problem.”
It wasn’t clear from the document if the issue discovered in 2001 was related to the issue that led to the recently announced recall of 1.4 million cars in North America. The issue cited in the recall has been linked to at least 12 deaths. GM had originally reported at least 13 deaths, but revised that number after determining that one of the deaths had been counted twice.
GM said late Wednesday it has been conducting “a more in-depth analysis of the information related to the vehicles” it recalled.
“Today’s GM is fully committed to learning from the past while embracing the highest standards for quality and performance now and in the future,” said spokesman Alan Adler.
The issue behind the recall involves ignition switches that can be bumped out of the “Run” position into the “Off” or “Accessory” position. That can cause power braking and steering, as well as airbags, to stop working.
The G.M. recall, which started on Feb. 13 with 619,000 cars in the United States before more than doubling recently.
In the past month, GM said it received a 27-page list of 107 questions from U.S. safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the company’s handling of the recall. NHTSA opened a probe into whether GM reacted swiftly enough in its recall. The request directs the Detroit company to respond by April 3. In its “special order” to GM’s director of product investigations and safety regulations, Carmen Benavides, NHTSA asked for details on the recall, including the names of all GM employees involved in the process from the start. The safety agency also asked for details of the problem with the ignition switch, any related warranty data, and any lawsuits filed in connection with the issue, including copies of depositions given by company employees. NHTSA cited a previous comment by North American chief Alan Batey, in which the executive said GM’s process on the issue “was not as robust as it should have been” and asked the company to detail where it fell short.
GM could face a maximum fine of $35 million if it failed to notify NHTSA within five days of a recall after learning of a vehicle safety defect. The company recalled a total of more than 1.6 million vehicles, mostly in North America. The company did not say how much the recall would cost. Analysts have said the biggest cost could result from the flurry of lawsuits likely to be triggered by the defect and the company’s actions. GM’s recall was to correct a condition that may allow the engine and other components, including front airbags, to be unintentionally turned off.
GM previously said the weight on the key ring, road conditions or some other jarring event may cause the ignition switch to move out of the “run” position, turning off the engine and most of the car’s electrical components. GM has recommended that owners use only the ignition key with nothing else on the key ring. The initial replacement parts should be available in early April.
Neil Skaar, an analyst in GM’s product development quality operations, said at a recent conference that GM dealers cannot sell any new cars that have been recalled and the company was in touch with its dealers to emphasize that any used cars would also be repaired under the recall as required by law before they are sold. Skaar said industry completion rates for getting cars repaired under recalls are typically in the 70 percent to 80 percent range, but GM achieves better rates than that.
Last month, GM said it was recalling 778,562 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 compact cars from model years 2005 through 2007. Last week, it added 842,103 Saturn Ion compact cars from 2003 through 2007 model years, Chevy HHR midsized vehicles from 2006 and 2007, and the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars from 2006 and 2007.
Of the cars recalled, 1,367,146 vehicles are in the United States, 235,855 are in Canada, 15,073 are in Mexico and 2,591 were exported outside North America, according to GM.
GM no longer makes any of the affected models.