By on March 14, 2014

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General Motors released their updated chronology to the recall effecting the 2007 and earlier Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR; Pontiac G5 and Solstice; and Saturn Ion and Sky. Most of the new chronology works just to update the document with the expanded recall, but there’s a key update:

During the Saturn Ion development in 2001, a preproduction model had  an ignition cylinder problem that was caused by, you guessed it, “low detent plunger force,” the result being that it takes a low amount of effort to knock the key out of the “run” position.

The 2001 Saturn Ion pre-production report goes on to say that design changes to the ignition cylinder seemingly eliminated the issue. However, in 2003 a report documented an instance where an Ion was brought in for repair, and the technician servicing the car experienced a situation where the Ion stalled while driving, due to the key rotating “off.” The technician noted that “[t]he owner had several keys on the key ring,” and initially thought that “[t]he additional weight of the keys had worn out the ignition switch.” The technician replaced the ignition cylinder, and the report was closed.

As we discussed in previous posts, Technical Service Bulletins (known by GM as Information Service Bulletins, or ISP for short) is the result of several field reports on a common issue, and is eventually entered into a database known as the General Motors Vehicle Information System, or GMVIS for short. ISB’s are not found by a tech unless they are searching for a related issue. Thus, the 2003 example above is an early report that lead to ISB  #05-02-35-007.

Also outlined in the updated chronology deals with Saturn’s  sensing and diagnostic module (“SDM”), which differs from the Cobalt in that it is designed to stop recording once the engine of the car is no longer running. This means that crash data from a Saturn Ion SDM is not as conclusive as a Cobalt’s, which continues to record the ignition position during an accident in which the engine has been turned off.

Despite this, GM believes that the ignition cylinder issue has lead to eight accidents and four fatalities involving a Saturn Ion. At least three accidents involving the Chevrolet HHR can be linked; but no accidents involving a Pontiac Solstice or Saturn Sky have been found by GM. This brings the confirmed number of accidents to 31, and total number of deaths to 13.

The New York Times reports that in a study initiated by the Center for Automotive Safety (“CSA”), a private watchdog group, Friedman Research Corporation analyzed federal crash data and found 303 deaths linked to no airbag deployment in the recall-effected vehicles. The study does not link these no-airbag crashes to the ignition switch maladies, but questions why the NHTSA took so long to react to a mounting problem with the Cobalt and Ion.

In the letter to the NHTSA, CSA states the “NHTSA should have and could have initiated a defect investigation to determine why airbags are not deploying in Cobalts and Ions in increasing numbers.” And GM has began its own internal investigation, hiring former United States attorney for Northern Illinois, Anton Valukas to investigate.

“Research is underway at G.M. and the investigation of the ignition switch recall and the impact of the defective switch is ongoing,” Mr. Martin, the G.M. spokesman, said. “While this is happening, we are doing what we can now to ensure our customers’ safety and peace of mind. We want our customers to know that today’s G.M. is committed to fixing this problem in a manner that earns their trust.”

What have we learned through all of this? The engineers and technicians did their job, and GM had every piece of the puzzle; but as explained in the chronology, each piece was scattered about by an alphabet soup of committees. The review process let us down, both with Delphi’s quality control in the early switches and GM’s internal reaction to the situation. Further investigation will hopefully lead us to fully understanding the error in GM’s review process.

The full text of the updated chronology can be seen here.

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49 Comments on “GM Found Ignition Switch Issues In 2001 With Saturn, Updated Chronology, New Study Shows 303 No-Airbag Deaths [w/ Full Text]...”


  • avatar
    84Cressida

    What’s a “technition”?

    And this whole ignition-gate fiasco is just getting started.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Publishing the 303 deaths number is irresponsible, since nobody has taken the time to link these deaths to ignition switches. Airbags can fail to deploy for a variety of reasons, and only one of them is the ignition switch.

    It’s easy for armchair experts to pin a negligence case on GM, just as some people try to say that the Bush Administration should have known which airplanes would be hijacked on 9/11/2001, and when.

    How many people died in GM cars over this time period – 40k? Divining faulty ignition switches among all these incidents would be pretty tough, especially at the beginning. This is why it’s taken so long for a pattern to develop. Not to mention the fact that GM doesn’t get a report on every car fatality, a third of which are DUI-related anyway.

    • 0 avatar
      Phillip Thomas

      “The study [does not] link these no-airbag crashes to the ignition switch maladies, but questions why the NHTSA took so long to react to a mounting problem with the Cobalt and Ion.”

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        @Phillip Thomas – I was referring to the ’303 deaths’ being widely reported in the media elsewhere, not by you personally. Although it is likely an entirely different cause, this report is suspiciously adjacent to the ignition switch story, so that casual readers will get the wrong impression.

        It’s more interesting for the media to imply that ‘GM lied, people died’, and to imply that the ignition switch deaths have jumped from 12 to 303, than it is to report accurate data starting with the headline and down throughout the article.

        At least you took the time to point out the distinction between the known sets of data, and the headline here at TTAC is fairly precise. Unfortunately, this evolving story still requires careful reading to figure out what is – and isn’t – going on.

        • 0 avatar
          Rick Astley

          You make a very solid argument, SCE to AUX.

          Albeit, an argument that is completely undone by the witch-hunt that the NHTSA penetrated Toyota with regarding the “unintended acceleration” lawsuit.

          In this case we have 12 deaths which have a strong possibility of being a result of this faulty ignition, a solid trail of evidence that GM knew of the issue and is at fault, and your apparent interest in journalistic integrity while displaying none of your own.

          An argument against the information being available is weak. A stronger argument would be that GM knowingly had a problem and through its own failures of internal control was unable to correct a situation which occurred during a controlled test, was repeatable and had no action or effort taken to correct the issue.

          Or perhaps what you’re really upset with is how “old GM” handled business since the “new GM” was reborn a beacon of moral standing? But you will have to give that insight.

          • 0 avatar
            SCE to AUX

            I don’t know what you’re talking about.

            First – Since this is a blog, and I’m not a journalist, I have the privilege of criticizing the media without having to live in that world.

            Second – GM does acknowledge the 12 deaths related to ignition switches. But these deaths were scattered over the thousands of people who died in GM cars over the years. Even these known cases were extremely difficult to discern amidst the noise of other issues for GM to address.

            Third – Were there more than 12? Probably. But to imply that the 303 total of airbag-less deaths is related to ignition switches is both incorrect and journalistically deceptive, when the media has not done the research to prove it – let alone GM, the NHTSA, or anyone else.

            Fourth – I’m no GM lover, but as an engineer I work with products my company has deployed around the world. The engineering team does not hear about every product failure, and developing patterns of failure takes time, good data, and human resources to do so. GM and Delphi clearly have responsibility in this debacle, but not every product fault is the result of a coverup or some conspiracy of silence. You’d have people believing GM wants to kill its own customers just to make a buck.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      What would cause the airbags not to deploy and result in a fatality? Besides not being belted in? Being drunk wouldn’t cause the airbags not to deploy.

      • 0 avatar

        > What would cause the airbags not to deploy and result in a fatality? Besides not being belted in? Being drunk wouldn’t cause the airbags not to deploy.

        Sometimes safety systems just fail, or simply weren’t designed to be sensitive enough in certain scenarios to avoid false positive activations. A weaker ignition lock just makes it somewhat easier to turn, but it’s all relative so it’s hardly inconceivable it happens to lesser extent in other cars, too.

        300 isn’t that many as a proportion given the high number of crashes in general and lack of control data. The article is just crappy like most for putting numbers in perspective, maybe because journalists can’t do math.

      • 0 avatar

        > What would cause the airbags not to deploy and result in a fatality? Besides not being belted in? Being drunk wouldn’t cause the airbags not to deploy.

        Sometimes safety systems just fail, or simply weren’t designed to be sensitive enough in certain scenarios to avoid false positive activations. A weaker ignition lock just makes it somewhat easier to turn, but it’s all relative so it’s hardly inconceivable it happens to lesser extent in other cars, too.

        300 isn’t that many as a proportion given the high number of crashes in general and lack of control data. The article is just crappy like most for failing to put numbers in perspective, maybe because journalists can’t do math.

      • 0 avatar
        Phillip Thomas

        That’s the question, but as of now it is not confirmed that the ignition switch was the cause of other no-airbag crashes. It could be a separate issue entirely.

      • 0 avatar

        It depends on which sensors are activated. My brother rear ended a semi that was parked on a 50 mph road. His Pontiac minivan submarined under the ICC bar on the back of the trailer. Even though the collision was serious enough to buckle the van’s roof and total the car, the airbags never activated because the sensor in the front bumper was untouched. BTW, he was wearing his seat belt and shoulder harness and walked away.

        Not every accident creates conditions necessary for the air bags to fire.

        • 0 avatar
          Lorenzo

          Your brother’s experience is a good example of the SUPPLEMENTAL safety system, the air bags, not working, but the PRIMARY safety system, the lap and shoulder belts, doing their job.

          If the reverse had happened, your brother likely would have been seriously injured, despite the airbag going off. Permanent disability or even death couldn’t be ruled out.

          If there’s one lesson new/young drivers, and a lot of bull-headed older ones need to learn, it’s that one.

      • 0 avatar
        MadHungarian

        If I am following the coverage of this issue correctly, the airbag sensor and deployment systems are not powered up and thus not functional unless the ignition switch is in the RUN position. That came as a surprise to me, and I wonder (a) is that true for all cars, and (b) how many people know that. I can think of a variety of reasons why a car might be occupied with the ignition off, and at risk of being hit. How big of a battery drain would it be to have the airbags always live? Or at least always live when there is at least a minimum amount of weight in a seat?

        • 0 avatar
          Johnny Canada

          @MadHungarian
          Not an expert, but I believe each system uses a capacitor to store enough electrical energy to fire the airbag, even if battery power is severed from the automobile during a crash.

          So, in GM’s design, if the car is turned “off” does this also deactivate the backup capacitance system?

  • avatar
    Z71_Silvy

    What have we learned through all of this?

    That this is not GMs fault and that these morons should not have had a ton of crap hanging from their ignition.

    Sadly, common sense will not prevail.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      1. Other manufactures can make ignition switches that DON”T FAIL with a “ton of crap hanging for their ignition”. How many people didn’t have this issue with their non-GM vehicle? 2. A cabal of class action lawyers will be getting new Gulfstream jets before all this over. 3. “today’s G.M. is committed to fixing this problem in a manner that earns their trust.” How about just fixing the damn things? That would earn people’s trust. 4. GM will go into full defensive mode at the mere whiff of any lawsuits. It’s a sad comment that they’ll accept a certain amount of fatalities if the price isn’t very high. 5. Tom Wolf said “you can’t go home again”. This may be many consumers last reason to leave GM forever. 6. Now you old ratty GM product that would run forever has a chance to kill ya! That should release some pent-up consumer demand. Not.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Lots of manufacturers can make gas pedals that bind with factory floor mats too.

        It isn’t a justification for GM…but other car makers are not immune to the wide spread stupidity issue.

        For another example, basically even the worst manufacturer can build cars that don’t crack their heads in less than 10K miles. As some Ford Escape owners with the 1.6 Turbo 4 what they think about that.

        I get it – engines fail – forced induction is tough – but holy crap – first year heads CRACKED isn’t going to win any engineering excellence awards.

        Blame is blame – no issues – but can we tone done the hyperbole – maybe a little?

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          Yea, I don’t think this is GM unique thing or even an automotive thing. It seems that every company which sells products goes through the same dance when there is a problem:

          1. “There is nothing wrong with our product.”
          2. If there is a problem (and we aren’t saying there is), it is due to user error not a design flaw.
          2a. Fans of the brand will hold onto the “user error” explanation for all eternity.
          3. Quick fix #1.
          4. “We fixed that problem years ago.”
          5. Quick fix #2.
          6. “We are very sorry for design flaw, have a permanent fix, and hope we can keep you as a customer in the future.”

    • 0 avatar
      rentonben

      My 2002 (MY 2003) Saturn Ion switched off when I was driving quickly on a *really* bumpy road dirt road – all I had was the light-weight GM key fob and a house key. My bouncing knee bumped the fob – the ignition rotated and car lost it’s power.

      I didn’t think much of it at the time – just reminded myself to keep my knees away from the keys. But the lock cylinder was really easy to turn away from run.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        I’ve posted earlier – I could see this expanding to GM W-Bodies of this era. I had an ’05 Grand Prix that due to placement and sensitivity I could see the ignition switch being an issue. I know there was a TSB for the ’05 Grand Prix with the “fix” being…

        …you guessed it, don’t hang crap on the key and a modified key.

        I think the surface is only scratched here.

    • 0 avatar
      VCplayer

      It doesn’t matter what goofy things the customer might have been doing, customers do things that horrify engineers all the time. The fact that GM considered the ignition cylinders not to be up to par in the first place should cue you in to the fact that someone at GM dropped the ball on this one.

      • 0 avatar

        > The fact that GM considered the ignition cylinders not to be up to par in the first place should cue you in to the fact that someone at GM dropped the ball on this one.

        The reality is in a process with thousands of steps and thousands of parts people drop the ball all the time. In fact it’s pretty much a modern miracle this sort of ball is in the air at all.

        The regulatory progress (as opposed to regulatory agenda) generally takes into account that humans aren’t perfectly competent, and therefore it’s often more concerned with mitigation in hindsight rather than foresight.

        Also, http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/gm-offers-cash-allowance-nhtsa-cites-lack-of-sufficient-data-amid-recall-fallout/#comment-2954890

        Just because a cylinder is loose doesn’t necessarily mandate the creativity to imagine that using a dumbbell as keyfob will have consequences in certain crashes. Nor does it mean that every incident involving a confluence of factor must absolutely address every single one.

        All it means that after some reasonable amount of due diligence the process can eventually figure out “significant” safety issues, where hopefully that’s somewhat well define.

    • 0 avatar
      tekdemon

      I’ve had the ring on my key break off and lost one of my car keys that way with just my keyless entry and an extra remote starter keyfob attached. I don’t know if this is how other manufacturers tried to address people putting too much weight on it (by having the keys break if too much force is applied) or what, but it’s pretty ridiculous to blame the consumer. Lots of people have a lot of keys to get in and out of their homes and businesses and it’s not like the instruction manuals ever explicitly say to keep two keychains. I have a whole bunch of keys for home and work and I keep those separate from my car keys but a lot of people keep them together and that hardly makes them people who deserve to die in a horrible crash because GM was too cheap to implement the $2 it would cost to fix this issue. To blame consumers for having a lot of keys on their keychain is plain insanity when every other car company seems to be able to avoid this issue. So now consumers should magically know that GM ignition barrels are pieces of crap that can’t handle having keys on the keychain?! Why would anybody know this when EVERY SINGLE OTHER CAR COMPANY manages to make an ignition that lets you put your whole keychain on it?!

    • 0 avatar
      Loki

      Professional troll at work, do not feed.

    • 0 avatar
      Hummer

      You don’t even try to act fair to other manufacturers, my preference is usually toward GM, lesser so as time goes on, but your bias is laughable at best.

      If this had been Ford, you would have had an entirely different attitude, end of story.

      I don’t care if you have a 5 lb dumbbell on the key chain, it shouldn’t happen.

      Edit let me make note I never noticed “agan”s use of the dumbbell example.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Should have just kept building the J-car.

  • avatar
    HerrKaLeun

    I feel sorry for the dead… but what does someone buying a GM expect? Everything about the car is crap and falls apart. did people think GM put a lot of money in the invisible safety?

    A deploying airbag doesn’t sell the car since during the test drive the airbag is not activated. but $2k cash on the hood sells a car.

    GM and Chrysler went bankrupt because of horrible cars, not sure why this is news. If a Yugo would have failing airbags no one would wonder. Same for GM.

    GM is the company that at some time has ABS pretty much standard, but then accountants took it out to make it an option. this “cheap ignition switch” is just another accounting issue.

    • 0 avatar
      tekdemon

      They’re also the same company that sold a lot of rental car specials that were missing side airbags in models that normally have them standard, and whose crash test ratings were based on those being standard features. They sold tons of Chevy Impalas which had no side impact airbags. The 2009 Impala got a 4/5 star side impact rating with side airbags but who knows what it got without them because it as never tested without them, but GM sold tons of those.

  • avatar
    3800FAN

    This is classic gm behavior dating back to the corvair. Its one of the biggest reasons they went under…feels good knowing what we bailed out doesn’t it..

  • avatar
    TTACFanatic

    Super conspiracy theory: GM hastened its own bankruptcy so it could wipe its hands of this impending shit storm.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    To paraphrase bender, “they’re boned.”

    • 0 avatar
      pb35

      To paraphrase Jack Baruth, “if you’re going to get t-boned, you want to be the one doing the boning.”

      GM is most certainly not doing the boning here. Quite the opposite.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    VW/ Audi has had several recalls for ignition switches. Very common failure in VAG vehicles.

    I assume any failure of the switch (mechanical or electrical) could limit airbag deployment.

    So a fix might power the bags 100% of the time which is probably more problematic.

    Even a loose battery cable or a fuse blow could stop an airbag working. Airbags are secondary system, nothing is 100% perfect. Use your belts!

    I could see if the tumbler locked the steering, but this is nuts. Cars break and power is lost, it has happened to me probably 5 times in my 40 years of driving.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      Airbags have become dead reliable in recent decades, but mostly, cars don’t typically shut off all electrical power and engine, point blank, while running or driving.

      Once the alternator stops charging, it’s a process of shutting off the less crucial systems 1st. The BATT light will kick on, and the CEL, followed by the ABS light, the radio will shut off, and the instruments, then the car will start running rough before it ultimately shuts down.

      A car with loose (enough) battery terminals won’t let the car start. Once (jump?) started, the same car needs far less clamping force (drawing far less amps) on the battery terminals to stay running, than to start.

      But a blown airbag fuse will trigger the AIRBAG warning light.

      Yes anything’s possible, but I’ve had zero instances of cars shutting off all electrical and engine, point blank, in a million+ miles of driving. Including lots of clapped out clunkers.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    “…morons should not have had a ton of crap hanging from their ignition.”

    Sure, ‘blame the victims’. For years, ignition switches were more durable, never heard of one doing this from ‘morons’ hanging ‘crap’.

    With all the turn over and the GM employees thinking of their jobs as ‘just a paycheck’, can see how they can cheapen out parts, and pass the blame on ‘morons’.

    If they go bankrupt again, no bail.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Sure, ‘blame the victims’. For years, ignition switches were more durable, never heard of one doing this from ‘morons’ hanging ‘crap’.

      +1, I own a 1967 Ford Mustang, approaching 200,000 original miles and the ignition cylinder/switch is most certainly original. Cars are 1000 times more reliable than they were 20, 30, 40 or more years ago but some of the “simple” everyday pieces (like ignition) are being cheapened out to the point where we have these issues.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        Sadly, ignition locks are not that durable, at least on some makes. My station car can be started and driven without the ignition key. Sure it is a old car car with very high cycles but it is also the second ignition lock cylinder. Pretty much all Ford products from the 90s can be started without the key if they have been used enough.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          My uncles diesel Suburban (1985 model) could be started without the key as well, right around the 300,000 mile mark. Twist the cylinder and go.

          My father in laws 1972 Chevy Pickup with over 300,000 miles – engine rebuilt several times but ignition switch still original – still needs a key to be started and run.

          I’d wager that all of them still need more twisting force than the recalled Cobalt ignitions to turn.

          One of my secretaries has a 2005 Cobalt sedan and she’s pretty pissed that this is her 3rd recall. Steering rack, fuel pump, and now ignition switch. She’s also mad a GM for their $500 “pittance” that they are offering on the purchase of a 2013-2015 vehicle. I think I should start looking up prices of 2013 CPO Cruzes for her.

    • 0 avatar
      SayMyName

      It truly would be delicious irony to see “New” GM brought to its knees by the sins of the former company. Further evidence that General Motors will never outrun its own sordid history, no matter how much taxpayer money is thrown at it.

  • avatar
    Reino

    The technician noted that “[t]he owner had several keys on the key ring,” and initially thought that “[t]he additional weight of the keys had worn out the ignition switch.”

    This is EXACTLY what a Chevy tech told my wife when she had the same problem with her Ion. Reading this here just affirms my theory that GM told all their techs to say this. I told her that was bullshit, and I replaced the ignition switch myself.

    I had no idea it may have been linked to non-deployment of airbags. Holy shit! Good thing she never got in an accident.

  • avatar
    segfault

    Here are a few cases of airbag non-deployment in the affected models from NHTSA’s Special Defects Investigations:

    2004 Ion, non-fatal non-deployment, EDR data corrupted possibly due to “power faulure:”
    http://www-nass.nhtsa.dot.gov/bin/Airmis.exe/getPDF?AirMisid=970094792

    2005 Cobalt, fatal non-deployment:
    http://www-nass.nhtsa.dot.gov/bin/Airmis.exe/getPDF?AirMisid=818083366

    2005 Cobalt, fatal non-deployment, “possibly due to…power loss as due to movement of the ignition switch:”
    http://www-nass.nhtsa.dot.gov/bin/Airmis.exe/getPDF?AirMisid=802177900

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Not related to the power loss, certainly, but none of these crashes involved * restrained * occupants!

      The second one is especially horrific! The remains of that car don’t even resemble a CAR! Unlikely that belts would have saved ANYBODY in that one; a front-seat passenger likely would have been killed outright.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        According to the report, the young girl died from severe liver injury caused by the steering wheel. Had she been belted and the bags been working she likely would have survived, though serious injuries would pretty much been a given. Add in the full throttle until impact, the high BAC, and it is easy to conclude that GM is not the only one at fault here.

  • avatar
    The Heisenberg Cartel

    I had an 05 Saturn Ion and I probably knee-knocked the key into the accessory position at least 30 times on the highway due to having long legs and the sensitivity of the ignition switch. It was a stick so the issue wasn’t serious for me (turn the key and let the car do a rolling start) but for someone with an automatic, no such luck.

    I hope GM gets HAMMERED for this.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      >> I hope GM gets HAMMERED for this.

      There’s a theory that if GM knew about the ignition problem and the potential for expensive litigation and didn’t disclose that information when they negotiated the restructuring agreement, it could be considered fraud and the bankruptcy could be reopened.


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