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'Key pullout,' another GM ignition flaw, was quietly fixed years before recall

UPDATED: 6/25/14 4:51 pm ET

DETROIT -- More than seven years ago, General Motors fixed two design flaws that allowed the key in some Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions to come out of the ignition while the engine was on, but the automaker didn’t notify existing owners about the problem until an April 2014 recall, according to a newly released document GM filed with federal safety regulators.

The problem is separate from the ignition-switch defect that GM has linked to 13 deaths and 54 crashes, although both issues involve the same vehicles and were the subject of internal engineering inquiries in 2004 and 2005.

It’s unclear whether the engineers looking into what they described as “key pullout issues” viewed the matter as having safety implications at the time, but the document provides another example of GM waiting years to publicly acknowledge ignition issues that it now views as defects.

GM said that it received hundreds of complaints about keys pulling out of the ignition when they weren’t supposed to, but that it knows of no fatalities and just one injury, which was caused by a car rolling away after the driver got out in a parking lot.

It said executives decided to issue a recall in April — covering all 2.6 million vehicles GM recalled in February and March for faulty ignition switches — after an engineer found key-pullout problems in 13 cars waiting for switch repairs at two Detroit-area dealerships.

But an investigation quickly found that it was not a new issue. GM had opened engineering inquiries in November 2004 and June 2005 related to Cobalt keys coming out while the ignition was in the “run” position, GM told regulators in an April 23 filing. The document, a chronology of the April recall, wasn’t posted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Web site until after Automotive News asked the agency for it on Tuesday.

A NHTSA spokesman declined to comment.

A GM spokesman said: “As part of our redoubled efforts to ensure customer safety and satisfaction, we looked at field actions to make sure we effectively addressed the issues at hand.”

Multiple quality problems

The 2004 inquiry resulted in a change by the key supplier. In response to the second inquiry, GM approved slightly modifying the size and shape of the ignition lock cylinder to eliminate a condition it described as a “tolerance stack up.” Testing determined that the solution, implemented during the 2006 model year, fixed the problem “going forward,” GM wrote in the chronology.

The engineer in charge of the Cobalt and Ion key cylinder, David Trush, said in an April 2013 deposition that GM experienced multiple production quality problems with the company that first supplied the part. He said the primary consequence was that customers were unable to start their car, though in same cases they could remove the key while the ignition was in “run.”

Trush said GM worked with that company, Ortech, to resolve the problems before switching to a new supplier in 2008. Asked what GM did for customers who owned vehicles with the original design, he said a technical-service bulletin was sent to dealers telling them to replace the cylinder if the car couldn’t be started.

Only two bulletins are posted on NHTSA’s Web site about cylinder replacement in the Cobalt or Ion. One is dated October 2002, before the design changes were made. The other is from 2012, when GM began a customer-satisfaction campaign to fix a problem that made keys difficult to turn or remove in cars from the 2009 and 2010 model years that already had the improved cylinder design. Neither bulletin references the key-pullout problem.

“You could bring it to a dealer and they would replace the cylinder,” Trush said in the deposition, which was taken as part of a wrongful death lawsuit in Georgia that helped lead to the ignition-switch recall. “A bad cylinder, when you bring it in, you would take the cylinder out, rekey, make a new cylinder, put it in, and it would work just fine.”

According to GM’s warranty data, 479 customers did just that. In addition, GM said it received 139 complaints from customers and dealers, one legal claim and six complaints through NHTSA.

It also identified 16 instances of cars rolling away unintentionally that could be connected to the defect, though it labeled evidence in all but one of the events to be “inconclusive.” In that one case, a 2006 Chevrolet HHR, which has the same ignition system as the Cobalt and Ion, rolled away after the driver “removed key while not in park,” GM said.

Violation of federal standards

GM said the key-pullout problem came back to the forefront when employees involved in the ignition-switch recall noticed that keys could sometimes be removed from cylinders even if the ignition was not in the “off” position. An engineer visited two GM dealerships and checked 81 cars left by customers who received loaner vehicles while awaiting a replacement ignition switch. He was able to remove the key from 13 of those 81 cars while the ignition was in a position other than “off.”

Engineers initially thought the problem stemmed from worn-out key cylinders, but GM found four complaints involving cars that were between one and six months old, suggesting “the possibility that these vehicles may have experienced key pullout issues at the time of manufacture,” GM said in the chronology.

GM said its top recall committee decided on April 3 that the problem amounted to a safety defect and that some cars -- 2003-04 Ions, all 2005 Cobalts and some 2006 Cobalts -- may violate federal theft- and rollaway-prevention standards.

It said it elected to recall all 2.6 million cars covered by the ignition-switch recall “to prevent unintended vehicle motion potentially caused by key pullout issues that could result in a vehicle crash and occupant or pedestrian injuries.” Dealers are replacing the lock cylinder and keys at the same time as the ignition switch, though cars that already have the redesigned cylinder will just be given new keys.

The new keys have a redesigned head that GM says will prevent a heavy key chain from pulling the ignition out of “run.”

GM in May agreed to pay a $35 million fine for breaking federal law by not issuing a recall for the Cobalt and Ion ignition switches quickly enough. The switches were redesigned with a stronger spring in April 2006, but because the engineer who authorized doing so didn’t change the part number at that time, virtually no one else in the company knew about that redesign until years later.

GM’s chronology doesn’t say whether the cylinder part number was changed when it was altered, but it says the change was documented in a work order, which was not the case with the switch redesign.

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