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General Motors Ignition Defect

Posted on Wednesday, October 15th, 2014   

The defect affecting 22 General Motors models from the 1997-2014 model years is two-fold: the ignition switch is loose and can move from the “Run” position to the “Accessory” or “Off” position while the vehicle is underway. And, the position of the ignition makes it easy for the driver’s knee to make casual contact with the dangling key ring.

The ignition switch defect is caused by low ignition key cylinder torque/effort – in some models – combined with a too-short detent plunger, a metal cylinder on a spring that slides into the notches of a plastic disc inside the ignition switch. In either case, the low torque condition allows the disc to slip from the “run” to “accessory” position. The sudden loss of power creates an emergency driving situation in which the driver loses the function of the power assisted steering and brakes. The defect also disables the power to fire airbags, so occupants are not protected in the event of a crash. GM has described this defect as:

The ignition switch torque performance may not meet General Motors’ specification. If the torque performance is not to specification, and the key ring is carrying added weight or the vehicle goes off the road or experiences some other jarring event, the ignition switch may inadvertently be moved out of the “run” position. The timing of the key movement out of the “run” position, relative to the activation of the sensing algorithm of the crash event, may result in the airbags not deploying, increasing the potential for occupant injury in certain kinds of crashes.

To date, GM has recalled more 14 million vehicles for ignition-related defects, beginning on February 7, 2014. The affected vehicles are:

  • 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt
  • 2007-2010 Pontiac G5
  • 2006-2011 Chevrolet HHR
  • 2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice
  • 1999-2005 Pontiac Grand Am
  • 2004-2008 Pontiac Grand Prix
  • 2008-2009 Pontiac G8
  • 2007-2010 Saturn Sky
  • 2003-2007 Saturn ION
  • 2011-2013 Chevrolet Caprice Police Vehicles
  • 2005-2009 Buick LaCrosse
  • 2006-2011 Buick Lucerne
  • 2003-2014 Cadillac CTS
  • 2000-2005 Cadillac Deville
  • 2006-2011 Cadillac DTS
  • 2004-2006 Cadillac SRX
  • 2010-2014 Chevrolet Camaro
  • 2000-2014 Chevrolet Impala
  • 1997-2005 Chevrolet Malibu
  • 2000-2007 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
  • 1999-2004 Oldsmobile Alero
  • 1998-2002 Oldsmobile Intrigue

This defect surfaced in early February 2014, when GM announced a partial recall for 619,122 Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles from the 2005-2007 model years, but did not disclose to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that it became aware of the defect in 2004 – before the Cobalt was sold. A series of news articles detailing documents obtained during litigation prompted GM to announce that it was adding four more models. But the revelations touched off Congressional hearings and a NHTSA probe. In late February, the agency opened a Timeliness Query (TQ) investigation to determine if GM had satisfied its statutory obligations to report a defect within five days of its discovery. In May, GM settled with the Department of Transportation, paying a $35 million civil penalty – the largest ever for a TQ.

In June, GM announced that it would launch a compensation fund for victims of the ignition switch defect. Administered by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, the program would focus on crashes in which the airbag did not deploy. As of mid-October, GM has cleared 52 claims for compensation including 27 deaths and 25 injuries. (NOTE: THIS NUMBER CHANGES AS FEINBERG ISSUES NEW REPORTS)

Some single-car run-off-the-road crashes have been blamed on the ignition switch defect, but may actually have been caused by a defect in the Electric Power Steering (EPS). In March, GM recalled 1.3 million vehicles for a sudden loss of electric power steering assist, caused by one of two factors: contamination of the torque and position sensor of the EPS system from the separation of grease applied to the steering column assembly; and electrical noise generated on the power and ground slip ring surfaces of the torque sensor.

This defect has a 10-year history, beginning in 2004, when NHTSA opened an investigation into power steering failures involving the Chevrolet Malibu and Malibu Maxx. In response, GM launched a customer Satisfaction Campaign, which terminated the inquiry. In total, NHTSA opened four more investigations into loss of power steering into seven more models from 2007-2011. GM was able to fend off most of the probes with limited recalls and special warranty coverage offers. But, in September 2011, NHTSA upgraded a query into an earlier recall involving loss of electronic power steering assist to an Engineering Analysis. NHTSA closed that investigation after GM launched this latest recall for multiple models and model years.
The loss of power steering recalls affects several of the same models, but not necessarily the same model years, as the ignition defect: MY 2004-2007 Saturn ION; MY 2009-2010 Chevrolet HHR; 2010 Cobalt. Other vehicles include: MY 2004-1005 Chevrolet Malibu, and some MY 2006, 2008 and 2009; the MY 2008-2009 Saturn Aura; and MY 2005-2009 Pontiac G6. Complaint data suggests that not all of the affected models and model years have been recalled and that EPS defects can cause steering lock-up type conditions that lead to loss of control crashes.

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