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A GM Ignition Switch Recall Primer

A quick summary of the crisis to date.

by on Mar.17, 2014

29-year-old Brooke Melton was killed in a 2009 crash involving her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.

This story has been updated to note the cost GM expects to cover for its various recalls during the first quarter of 2014.

Recalls have become an almost every day norm in the automotive world.  Just over the weekend, for example, Honda announced a service action impacting almost 900,000 minivans sold in the U.S., and Chrysler recalled roughly 100,000 vehicles last week.  But the recall of 1.6 million General Motors vehicles last month has created shock waves throughout the industry – and headlines around the world.

It has already been dubbed “Switch-gate,” and generated Watergate-style questions about who knew what and when because of GM’s own admission it had warning signs that faulty ignition switches could cause vehicles to stall, and possibly crash, as early as 2001.

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With at least 12 deaths linked to the problem, a number of investigations are now underway that could see GM hammered with massive fines, possible civil and criminal charges, and class-action lawsuits claiming millions, perhaps even billions, in damages.

With new headlines popping up seemingly every other day, here’s a quick summary of the key dates, numbers and details:

There are new alegations that GM knew about the problem with its ignition switches as early as 2001.

* On 2/13, GM announced plans to recall almost 800,000 compact models due to an ignition switch problem. A heavy key ring or jouncing on a rough road could cause the ignition to switch out of the ON position, causing engine stalling and the disabling of the vehicle airbag system. GM initially said the issue was linked to 6 deaths.

* Two weeks later, after facing heavy pressure from critics, the maker doubled the size of the recall – to 1.6 million — and said 13 deaths were linked to the problem.  NOTE: GM later reduced the number to 12 deaths, saying it “double-counted” one.

(Switch-gate: what did GM know and when did it know it? Click Here for more.)

* A preliminary timeline issued by GM raised serious concerns, indicating the maker apparently had early reports of the problem dating as far back as 2004, and that it abandoned a quick and relatively inexpensive fix.

* Subsequent information, as well as revised timeline information now indicates the first signs of trouble were reported by a GM engineer as far back as 2001, even before one of those models, the Saturn Ion, went into production.

* Along with the second recall, GM’s North American President Alan Batey apologized for the lack of a “robust” recall process.  The maker has since issued several more apologies, including one from new CEO Mary Barra who has said she will personally take over the internal investigation of the switch recall mess.

* The maker is offering $500 cash to owners of the recalled vehicles — of which about 1.4 million are still on the road — that can be used towards a trade-in. Owners also can ask for a loaner vehicle until dealers have the necessary parts to complete repairs.

(Click Here for more on GM’s offer to assist owners of the recalled vehicles.)

GM offers $500 cash for owners of recalled models, like this 2007 Chevy Cobalt, to trade in.

* GM has hired two major law firms to do the internal investigation, including one whose head, a former US prosecutor, had led the investigation into the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

* Separate Senate and House Committees have now gotten into the flap, one holding a hearing last week.

* GM is facing an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and could face record fines for failing to act on a known safety defect as quickly as required by law. But NHTSA is also taking heat as some critics believe the safety agency might have shown lax oversight instead of stepping in on the issue earlier. NHTSA’s acting director insists GM didn’t provide enough information to respond to.

(NHTSA takes head. Click Here for the story.)

* The US Justice Dept. is now in the midst of its own preliminary investigation that could result in potential criminal charges against GM.

Brooke Melton is one of 12 people GM acknowledges was killed due to the ignition switch problem.

* There are now a variety of lawsuits and a possible class action suit targeting the problem.

* One of the more intriguing angles to the story: when GM emerged from bankruptcy in July 2009 it left behind most debts and liabilities.  Among other things, any product liability or wrongful death lawsuits stemming from incidents that occurred before that time cannot be filed against the “new” GM.  Instead, lawsuits would have to target the “old” GM left behind in bankruptcy court.  In legal terms: good luck. Critics want GM to waive that immunity.

* Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, along with former NHTSA Joan Claybrook, call on GM to set up a $1 billion victim’s compensation fund — though Ditlow told he had no specific reason to justify that number.

* Likewise, Ditlow and Claybrook issue a letter to NHTSA claiming 300 or more deaths are linked to the recalled vehicles but a closer inspection raises just as many questions about the source and accuracy of their numbers.

(12 deaths or 300? Click Here for the story.)

GM CEO Mary Barra is personally overseeing the company's response to the faulty ignition switch recall.

* GM itself on Monday announced three new recalls — and said it will take a $300 million hit to earnings for the first quarter of 2014 to cover those, and the ignition switch, recalls.

* All this is happening even as GM tries to demonstrate that it really is a “new” company.  Just last week, it landed more vehicles on the US News & World Report list of Best Family Vehicles than any other maker.  Its scores have soared in various third-party quality and reliability metrics, like the JD Power Initial Quality Survey and in Consumer Reports’ annual automotive rankings.  In some, GM is actually now ahead of arch-rival Toyota.

* Toyota, you may recall, faced a safety crisis of its own, a few years back, over so-called unintended acceleration.  It was hit with then-record fines and has paid several billion out in legal settlements and jury verdicts.  But its image has all but fully recovered.  The question is whether GM can turn its own image around, a major challenge for new CEO Barra.

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One Response to “A GM Ignition Switch Recall Primer”

  1. Jonathan Hubel says:

    The problem with the GM ignition switches is a lot deeper than anyone knows about (other than GM). The problem goes all the way back to 1995 when GM first started using this style of switch in the trucks and SUV’s. They did some recalls on those switches also. THE PROBLEM HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH KEYS,KEY RINGS OR ANYTHING ON THE KEY RINGS…

    The problem is they are a cheap defective design. This style of switch is used on almost ALL GM vehicles after 2001.

    I own a 1996 chevy silverado, 1/2 ton 4×4. The ignition switch has had major failure several times. The 1st failure was the main ignition circuit that would shut off the engine at any time.

    Most of the other failures (worse in my opinion) would shut off power to the transmission circuit. Why is that worse? It will cause internal damage to the electrically controlled transmissions.In my case the first failure resulted in the transmission failing. The sun drum and planetary gear failures in the 4L60E transmissions are the fault of faulty ignition switches. Ever since that first transmission rebuild (did it myself) I have had the switch fail a couple times.

    The first time the switch failed I replaced it with a new switch, that lasted 17k miles…
    So I opened up my original switch to find the problem. The contacts inside the switch are not heavy enough for the current.The circuit on my switch for the transmission had a very thin layer of carbon on the silver contact surface. I proceeded to file all the contact surfaces flat, tweaked the removable contacts so they lined up right, and reassembled the switch. I re-installed my old switch and ran that for the last 5 years,just shy of 100k miles. It just failed again and I cleaned it up with a file again.

    The first sign that the trans circuit is dead will be a lot of noise that sounds like an engine knock. If it happens while driving it will be noticed when you slow down from highway speed and the vehicle will act like it has a flat tire ,all kinds of bad vibrations.

    Most of the circuit faults will cause the check engine light to come on or blink.The only exception is if the main ignition circuit fails, in that case about the only thing that stays on is the headlights.

    All they need to do is design a stronger switch housing that does not flex during use and replace the silver contact points with tungsten points.
    If there cheap switches just would have used tungsten they would not have failed.