General Motors Co. To Recall 1.3 Million Vehicles to Repair Steering
David McNew/Getty Images
By Jeff Plungis

General Motors (GM), after months of studying ignition-switch failures in the Chevrolet Cobalt, canceled a proposed fix in 2005, when a project engineering manager cited high tooling costs and piece prices, according to documents obtained by U.S. congressional investigators.

A separate opportunity to address the defect was passed over by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2007, when it opted not to open a formal defect investigation even after an agency official had said a probe was justified, according to an interview between current NHTSA officials and staff members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Those decisions and this year's recall of 2.6 million small cars for faulty ignition switches are set to be the main focus of congressional hearings Tuesday and Wednesday. GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra and acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman are being asked to explain the handling of years of complaints about stalling cars and disabled air bags that have now been linked to the switches and tied to 13 deaths.

"Lives are at stake, and we will follow the facts where they take us as we work to pinpoint where the system failed," Representative Fred Upton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement Sunday.

GM opened an engineering inquiry about the Cobalt ignition switch in November 2004, after customers complained the engine "can be keyed off with knee while driving," according to a problem-tracking system document obtained by House investigators. Four months later, the Cobalt project engineering manager rejected a key slot change, citing cost and long lead times.

"None of the solutions presents an acceptable business case," according to a GM memo cited by the House committee.

'Early Warning'

The chief of NHTSA's Defects Assessment Division emailed other officials in the Office of Defects Investigation in September 2007,
saying owner complaints from 2005 and "early warning" data about warranty repairs and injuries justified a probe, according to the memo from the committee.

"Notwithstanding GM's indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non-deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers," the official said, according the memo issued before a committee hearing on vehicle defects.

NHTSA chose not to open a formal defect investigation in 2007 after reviewing the air-bag data. In 2010, after a special crash investigation report was filed with NHTSA about a May 2009 Cobalt crash, the agency again considered a defect probe focused on the car's air bags. For a second time, the agency backed off after further reviewing data, according to the memo.

'At Stake'

Barra and Friedman are scheduled to appear before Upton's committee Tuesday, and a Senate committee Wednesday.

"As we have stated previously, the agency reviewed data from a number of sources in 2007, but the data we had available at the time did not warrant a formal investigation," a NHTSA spokesman, Nathan Naylor, said. "Recent data presented by GM provides new information and evidence directly linking the ignition switch to the air-bag non-deployment. That's why we are aggressively investigating the timing of GM's recall."

The ignition-switch defect in six GM models including the Cobalt and Saturn Ion has been linked to the deaths in at least 31 crashes. GM recalled about 1.6 million cars worldwide in February, and an additional 971,000 last week.

"We deeply regret the events that led to the recall," a GM spokesman, Greg Martin, said in an emailed statement. "We are fully cooperating with NHTSA and the Congress, and we welcome the opportunity to help both have a full understanding of the facts."

Barra's Leadership

GM approved production of the ignition switch in 2002 even though testing showed torque in the part fell short of the company's original specifications, the part's supplier, Delphi Automotive Plc, told House investigators.

The congressional hearings present a test of leadership for Barra, who took over as GM's first female CEO on Jan. 15 and said she first learned the details of the recall two weeks later. Barra and other top executives are trying to remake the image of the Detroit-based automaker after last year shedding the final vestiges of U.S. government ownership linked to its 2009 bankruptcy.

Barra has apologized for the slow response that resulted in deaths. GM has also hired an outside investigator to probe the delay and has created a vice president position in charge of global vehicle safety, as Barra has sought to shore up GM's image and reinforce the automaker's message that it's recreating itself after its $50 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.

Firestone, Ford

Upton has said he wants to know why regulations already in place didn't catch the GM problems sooner. Upton led the probe in 2000 over highway deaths linked to Firestone tires on Ford Motor's (F) Explorer sport-utility vehicles.

Upton, 60, was the lead House author of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, or Tread Act. The 2000 law boosted communication between carmakers and the government and increased NHTSA's ability to collect data, with automakers required to report more potential threats such as defect claims or lawsuits, and recalls in other nations.

"The Tread Act was supposed to keep folks safe and prevent this very situation," Upton said in the statement. "We now know the problems persisted over a decade, the red flags were many, and yet those responsible failed to connect the dots."

General Motors Expands Huge Ignition Switch Recall

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If I can promise you enought votes. Then will I be allowed to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?

April 01 2014 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mom and Dad

A lot of us were aware of GM's shortcomings and made our feelings known. All you needed to do was to have to deal with them about a complaint and that told the whole story of their greedy arrogance. Then to top it off, we have a president that is not astute enough to let them die through their own massive failures. I know what I speak of. My father and grandfather both owned GM dealerships. If you choose to disagree with me, I couldn't care less. If you choose to argue with me, you can go to hell.

April 01 2014 at 12:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It crazy how people are quick to blame the gov't and unions for everything. At no time did the gov't dictate to GM on how to run the company after coming out of bankruptcy. How they managed the plants, where they got parts or assembled vehicles was all GM doing. As for the unions they are the back bone of this country. If not everybody would be making less than $7 a hour and working in unsafe conditions. The unions are responsible for many things that people got and take for granted, like the company's gave these things out of the goodness of their hearts. Our gov't leaders are the problem, and till that is fixed, nothing will change for the better. Jobs is the biggest problem in this country today, and our leaders know this. They want to wave the banner for creating x-amount of minimum wage jobs, which is actually a joke. This country wants good paying job like it once had, until the WTA. It's quite easy to fix, just null and void the WTA and put the high tariffs back on things entering this country. China, Asia and Japan won't like it and surely the big business would be against it too. But all our elected leaders care about is taking care of the big corporations and foreign gov't. That's who everybody should be blaming for the way things are today, not the unions.

March 31 2014 at 6:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just saw the video of GM's CEO Barra. She's got kids and she's a mom so I guess all's forgiven. I'm not sure playing the vagina card is the best approach when people have been dying from faulty equipment that GM's known about for years. Here's an idea, whyn not fire a couple of the bean counters at GM for starters.

March 31 2014 at 5:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

How much do you want to bet the faulty ignition switches were made in China or some other 3rd World country?

March 31 2014 at 5:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to Chris's comment

It is a shame,anyrhing that is run by the Government and unions will collapse at the end,GM is not what it was

March 31 2014 at 4:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The key ring weight problem started in the 1960's. I got my license in 66 and was already told not to have a heavy key ring. Notice how how the problem now started when the government took over the company? Gov't union company is not going to spend the money or save lives.

March 31 2014 at 4:43 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dmorgan905's comment

I bought an HHR for my wife,based only in their retro style in 2009,so far had problems with the electric steering motor,will have to change front shock absorbers,and the remote start stopped working ,only have 30.000 miles

March 31 2014 at 4:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just another example of George Bush and his Republican cronies failing to do their jobs by letting their buddies off the hook again. It serves as a reminder of the over 4000 military lives lost resulting from the lies and the Iraq fiasco and over 3000 civilian lives loss resulting from the failure of these clowns to protect the country by performing their duties and responsibilities. Thousands of lives lost and millions and millions of tax dollars wasted.

March 31 2014 at 4:40 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to martrenaraleigh's comment

what the **** does geogre bush have to do with this? I'm all for placing the blame at who ever is in charge but this has nothing to do with the president. This was an issue between GM and the NHSTA. You are so Bias it is sickening.

Hell if you read it, the one guy leading the congressional charge against the bullshit is a republican.

March 31 2014 at 5:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Mary Lou

Money before people : :(

March 31 2014 at 3:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mary Lou's comment


March 31 2014 at 4:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Well there next suit will be brake failure due to rotted brake lines. So any g.m. owners.. Check your lines. Im surprised no one has been injured or killed. So i hope they look into that. Check just to
make sure your safe and think of what could happen. i dont have 30,000 on my 03 gmc sirrea how pathedic.complete clutch and pressure plate to. that was 5000 miles. another big bill for an expensive truck.

March 31 2014 at 3:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply