General Motors added more than 588,000 vehicles to a recall to fix ignition switches that can inadvertently shut off engines and cause crashes, a problem that has now been linked to 31 crashes and 13 front-seat deaths and sparked criticism of the company's years-long investigation of the problem.
A heavy key ring or jarring from rough pavement can move the ignition out of the run position, cutting off the engine. If that happens, the front air bags may not work, GM said.
The company said Tuesday it is adding Saturn Ion compacts from model years 2003 through 2007, and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars from model years 2006 and 2007, to the recall.
The additional models increase the total number of vehicles recalled in the United States to 1.37 million. Overall, GM is recalling 1.6 millions vehicles with the problem worldwide.
GM said on Feb. 13 that it would recall 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s from the 2005 through 2007 model years to inspect and repair the ignition switch.
GM, responding to complaints the first recall notice was delayed too long after the company received field reports of the problem, said it filed documents with U.S. safety officials on Monday that detail the initial recall of "the ignition switch torque performance condition" in Chevrolet Cobalts, and Pontiac G5s and Pursuits.
"The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been," GM North America President Alan Batey said in a statement. "Today's GM is committed to doing business differently and better. We will take an unflinching look at what happened and apply lessons learned here to improve going forward."
The information shared with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration outlines events that happened during the time that elapsed between receiving the first field reports about the problem and issuing a recall.
Tracking the problem
In the document, dated Feb. 24, GM says it first learned of the engine cutoff problem in 2004, around the time the 2005 Cobalt went on sale.
Company engineers were able to replicate the phenomenon, but when they considered the lead time, cost and effectiveness of potential solutions, they closed the inquiry without taking any action.
GM says that in 2005 it received more field reports of Cobalt vehicles losing engine power when a driver inadvertently hit the key or the steering column.
The company issued a service bulletin in December 2005 informing dealers that the problem was more likely to occur if the driver had a large or heavy key chain. Dealers were advised to tell customers to remove nonessential items from key rings.
The company also offered to provide an insert for its key ring so keys would not be able to hang so low or swing so freely.
GM says it expanded the service bulletin in October 2006 to include several other models; warranty records show that GM has provided key inserts to 474 customers to date.
By that time, GM says, it had approved changes to the ignition switch that were proposed by supplier Delphi Mechatronics, with the changeover occurring during the 2007 model year.
A few years later, in February 2009, GM changed the design of the key to replace the key ring slot with a hole, reducing the risk of a force that could cause the ignition to shut off.
Cluster of crashes
Chevrolet Cobalt production ended in summer 2010. The next year, the company says, it started investigating a cluster of crashes in which airbags had not deployed -- all of which seemed to be taking place in vehicles from model year 2007 and earlier.
GM says it discovered that in many of these crashes, the ignition had moved from the "run" position to the "accessory" or "off" position.
However, the automaker told safety regulators it had trouble identifying the exact problem because many of the accidents involved "violent off-road impacts occurring under widely varying circumstances."
Over the course of 2012 and 2013, GM says, it became clear that older ignition switches did not meet GM's specifications, and that this difference was one factor in whether a key could move out of the "run" position into the "accessory" position, which could cause airbags not to deploy.
But it wasn't until late last year that GM -- after retaining "outside engineering resources to conduct a comprehensive ignition switch survey and assessment" -- was confident that it understood that the ignition switch was the problem and that a recall was needed.
Once the company reached that conclusion in late 2013, GM says, it held two meetings, in December and January, before ordering a safety recall at a meeting on Jan. 31.
GM plans unflinching probe
NHTSA may examine whether GM moved quickly enough to issue the recall after learning of the fatal crashes in which the airbags did not deploy.
Under federal regulations, once a manufacturer is aware of a safety problem it must, within five business days, inform NHTSA of its plan for a recall or face a civil fine. The maximum penalty is $35 million.
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, said GM should have recalled the cars years ago, once the company started seeing signs that the ignition switch was prone to failure.
“I hope that there will be a congressional investigation of this,” Claybrook, a former president of the consumer group Public Citizen, said in an interview. “How could NHTSA let it go on for 10 years and how could General Motors let it go on for 10 years? As they said after Watergate: What did they know, and when did they know it?”
GM said dealers will inspect and replace the ignition switch to prevent the unintentional or inadvertent key movement. Until the inspection and recall is performed, owners and drivers should use only the ignition key with nothing else on the key ring, GM said.
The company said it is also working with suppliers to increase parts output and accelerate availability.
"Ensuring our customers' safety is our first order of business," Batey said in the statement. "We are deeply sorry and we are working to address this issue as quickly as we can."
David Phillips contributed to this report.