DETROIT — Ten years ago, two General Motors engineers reported that the ignition switch on the Saturn Ion was so flimsy and so low on the steering column that the driver’s knee could easily bump the key and turn off the car.
"This is a basic design flaw and should be corrected if we want repeat sales," one of the engineers wrote in January 2004 as part of GM's Company Vehicle Evaluation Program.
But not only did GM fail to correct the flaw; it installed the same switch on the Chevrolet Cobalt that the company introduced that year, proclaiming a new era of higher-quality small cars. It kept using the switch until 2006, when it was quietly redesigned.
For years, as drivers complained that their Cobalts and Ions were stalling repeatedly, GM treated it as a matter of customer satisfaction, not safety. Documents show that the company either didn't grasp the significance of the problem or didn't consider it worthy of resources.
A 2005 entry in GM's complaint-tracking system blamed drivers' bad habits: "They hit the ignition key slot."
Proposals considered before the Cobalt went on sale were vetoed "after consideration of the lead time required, cost, and effectiveness of these solutions," GM said in a detailed timeline filed Feb. 24 with federal regulators.
The decade-long lead-up to a recall, during which at least 13 people died in crashes linked to the defect, appears, in the best case, to be a tragic byproduct of GM's famously siloed culture, which stymied the sort of interdepartmental communication and data sharing that could have prompted quicker action. Compounding the chances for a serious defect to go unresolved for so long was the fact that GM eliminated one-third of its white-collar work force from 2005 through 2009.