DETROIT – U.S. safety regulators are demanding that General Motors turn over reams of documents and other data showing what the company knew about a dangerous ignition problem that has been linked to 13 car crash deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating how GM handled the problem, which triggered the recall of 1.6 million older-model compact cars worldwide. GM has acknowledged it knew of the ignition troubles a decade ago but didn’t recall the cars until last month.
In an order sent to GM on Tuesday, the safety agency demanded pictures, memos, electronic communications, engineering drawings and other data to answer 107 questions about the case. The reply, which must be signed under oath by a company officer, is due April 3. GM spokesman Alan Adler said Wednesday that the company is cooperating.
The agency wants the documents to determine whether GM delayed its response or withheld evidence. In either case, GM could be fined up to $35 million. Automakers are required to inform the transportation agency of safety defects within five days of discovering them. Such a fine would be a record for the agency but essentially is pocket change for GM, which made $3.8 billion last year.
Included in the order are a series of questions about when GM discovered the ignition problem in 2004 and the identity of employees involved in finding and replicating it. The order asks what fixes GM considered, including the lead time required, costs and effectiveness of each of the solutions.
On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Two weeks later, it added 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007) and Chevrolet HHR SUVs, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007). GM produces the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups at its Allen County truck plant.
Facts surrounding the recall are embarrassing for GM and could scare away consumers. Since undergoing a painful bankruptcy in 2009, GM has removed layers of bureaucracy, improved the quality of its vehicles and is quicker to issue recalls when problems occur. However, the admission that its procedures were lacking 10 years ago shows how the old culture can still haunt the automaker.
In an effort to reassure employees and customers, GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra, on Tuesday promised an unvarnished internal investigation to figure out what happened and prevent it from recurring.
We want our customers to know that today’s GM is committed to fixing this problem in a manner that earns their trust, Adler said.
The maximum fine the safety agency can issue was more than doubled last year under legislation approved by Congress after the Toyota recalls. But critics say it still isn’t enough to deter bad behavior.
GM says a heavy key ring or jarring from rough roads can cause the ignition switch in the recalled vehicles to move out of the run position and shut off the engine and electrical power. That can knock out power-assisted brakes and steering and disable the front air bags. In the fatalities, the air bags did not inflate, but the engines did not shut off in all cases, GM said.