General Motors officials told the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) they knew of a Chevrolet Cobalt ignition switch problem in 2004, which could shut off the engine leading to the possibility of a crash, but closed the investigation into the situation “after consideration of the lead time required, cost and effectiveness of each of these solutions [suggested by its team].” The company has issued a recall for the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 over the ignition switch issue, which has been linked six crashes, “that resulted in eight fatalities,” according to the automaker.
Chevy is recalling certain model year 2005-2007 Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5 vehicles. “In the affected vehicles, the weight on the key ring and/or road conditions or some other jarring event may cause the ignition switch to move out of the run position, turning off the engine,” according to the NHSTA recall alert. “If the key is not in the run position, the air bags may not deploy if the vehicle is involved in a crash, increasing the risk of injury.”
The recall covers 619,122 vehicles.
“This risk may be increased if the key ring is carrying added weight or the vehicle goes off road or experiences some other jarring event,” M. Carmen Benavides, director of product investigations and safety regulations for General Motors, writes in a letter to NHTSA.
“Until the recall repairs have been performed, it is very important that customers remove all items from their key rings, leaving only the vehicle key. The key fob (if applicable), should also be removed from the key ring,” Benavides adds.
GM says dealers will replace the ignition switch.
In an attachment to the NHTSA letter, Chevy reports, “Around the time of the launch of the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, GM learned of at least one incident in which a Cobalt lost engine power because the key moved out of the ‘run’ position when the driver inadvertently contacted the key or steering column. GM employees were able to replicate this phenomenon during test drives. An engineering inquiry, known within GM as a Problem Resolution Tracking System inquiry (PRTS) was opened to investigate the issue. Engineers believed that low key cylinder torque effort was an issue and considered a number of potential solutions. After consideration of the lead time required, cost and effectiveness of each of these solutions, the PRTS was closed with no action.”
In 2005, GM employees received new field reports of Cobalts losing engine power, “including instances in which the key moved out of the ‘run’ position when a driver inadvertently contacted the key or steering column.”
“Further PRTS’s were opened to re-asses this issue,” according to GM. “During the course of a PRTS opened in May 2005, an engineer proposed that GM redesign the key head from a ‘slotted’ to a ‘hole’ configuration. That proposal was initially approved but later canceled.”
At the time, GM issued a service bulletin to dealers, informing them that “there is a potential for the driver to inadvertently turn off the ignition due to low ignition key cylinder torque/effort; … The concern is more likely to occur if the driver is short and has a large or heavy key chain and … the customer should be advised of this potential and should take steps to prevent it—such as removing unessential items from their key chain.”
The bulletin also informed dealers, “Engineering has come up with an insert for the key ring so that it goes from a ‘slot’ design to a ‘hole’ design. As a result, the key ring cannot move up and down in the slot any longer—it can only rotate on the hole. … In addition, the previous key ring has been replaced with a smaller 13 mm design. This will result in the keys not hanging as low as in the past.”
In December 2005, GM reports it decided “the service bulletin and field service campaign was the appropriate response to the reported incidents, given that the car’s steering and braking systems remained operational even after a loss of engine power, and the car’s engine could be restarted by shifting the car into either neutral or park.”
In October 2006, the service bulletin was updated to include the 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, the 2007 Chevrolet HH, the Pontiac G5, the 2007 Pontiac Solstice and 2007 Saturn Ion, as well as the 2007 Saturn Sky.
“GM’s warranty records indicate that GM dealers have provided key inserts to 474 customers who brought their vehicles into dealers for service,” according to the NHTSA document.
On March 29, 2007, GM employees met with NHTSA representatives in Washington, D.C., to discuss occupant restrain systems. At the time, GM says “a NHTSA representative informed the GM employees of a fatal crash that occurred on July 29, 2005, in which a 2005 Cobalt was involved in a frontal collision, the airbags did not deploy and data retrieved from the car’s sensing and diagnostic module (SDM) indicated that the car’s power mode status was ‘accessory’ [not in run mode].”
GM’s legal staff opened a file on this crash and an investigating engineer was asked to determine common characteristics for crashes in which Cobalts were involved in frontal impacts and the airbags did not deploy.
“By the end of 2007, GM had notice of ten such incidents. SDM data was available for nine of the ten crashes and that data showed that the ignition was in the ‘run’ position in five of the crashes and in the ‘accessory’ position in four of the crashes.”
In February 2009, the company opened another investigation, which resulted in the “top of the key being changed from a ‘slot’ design to a ‘hole’ design.” This design change was implemented for the 2010 Cobalts, according to GM.
In 2010, GM discontinued the Cobalt, which was previously planned, and investigations went on into the Cobalt with “inconclusive results.”
In 2013, the automaker hired an outside technical expert who found “the ignition switched he tested that had been installed in early-model Cobalts did not meet GM’s torque specification; changes had been made to the ignition switch’s detent plunger and spring several years after the start of production and those changes most likely explained the variation from GM’s specifications for torque performance observed in the original switches installed in 2007 and earlier model-year vehicles.” The supplier confirmed that changes were made later in the year.
Ultimately, the investigation results were presented to the company’s Field Performance Evaluation Review Committee and Executive Field Action Decision Committee. After two meetings with these committees, the latter committee directed a safety recall.
NHSTA received the documents this month.
“Between 2005 and the date of this submission, GM is currently aware of 23 frontal-impact crashes involving 2005 to 2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5s, in which the recall condition may have caused or contributed to the airbags’ non-deployment,” GM officials wrote in their letter to NHTSA. “During that same timeframe, of these crashes, GM is currently aware of six that resulted in eight fatalities of frontal occupants.
“GM employees became aware of many of these crashes within a month of the dates on which they occurred,” the letter continues. “As GM learned of these crashes, employees undertook to investigate the underlying facts and circumstances to determine, among other things, why the airbags were not deployed. With respect to 22 of the 23 frontal-impact crashes referenced above, the data retrieved from the vehicles’ SDMs indicated that the ignition switches were in the ‘run’ position in nine of the crashes, in the ‘accessory’ position in 12 of the crashes, and in the ‘off’ position in one of the crashes. Throughout this period, GM was involved in claims and lawsuits in which allegations were made regarding the ignition switch issue that is the subject of the recall.”
The letter concludes with, “These 23 crashes are out of a total U.S. population of 619,122 vehicles subject to the pending recall.”
GM settled with one family over a 2010 crash that killed pediatric nurse Brooke Melton, according to a report. She died on her 29th birthday in a Cobalt she bought new in 2005. The terms of the settlement are confidential.