In some ways, this story echoes the recent recalls involving Toyota for complaints of sudden acceleration: slow response and internal denial of the scope of the problem.
At one point in 2010, Toyota briefly stopped sales of eight models — including top sellers such as the Camry and Corolla — saying the gas pedals could get stuck and cause runaway acceleration. The automaker also shut down production of the vehicles for a week while it examined how to fix the problem, which it attributed to wear on the pedal system.
Toyota had a problem with current product, while GM managed to deny and delay long enough that the product is no longer being manufactured.
The GM recalls were issued in February and affect 1.4 million cars in the U.S. The models are 2003-07 Saturn Ions, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstices, 2006-07 Saturn Sky models, and 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models. The cars all share the same ignition component; none of them remain in production.
The faulty switch makes it possible for a heavy key chain or driver's knee to knock the ignition key out of the "run" position while the car is on the road. This disables safety systems such as the power steering, anti-lock brakes and air bags.
Internal documents submitted by GM to NHTSA show the automaker was aware of the issue as early as 2001, when it surfaced on a prototype Saturn Ion. The problem was first noticed in production models in 2004.
The Department of Justice and committees in the U.S. House and Senate have opened investigations in the matter, and GM is likely to face at least a $35-million civil fine.
While the civil justice system is usually available for the survivors of those who died in collisions that resulted from the defective ignition switches, GM went through a bankruptcy in 2009 and the New GM is likely immune from any litigation involving these defects manufactured by the old GM.