Your Guide To The Problem GM Didn't Fix Until 13 People DiedS

The shadow of old General Motors looms large over the post-bailout company this week as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration begins an investigation into the timing of the recall of some 1.4 million GM cars in the U.S. and Canada following crashes that killed 13 people.

The recall alone is shaping up to be one of the more significant safety-related controversies GM, or any other automaker, has faced in some time. But the fact that we now know GM knew about this problem for nearly a decade before issuing an actual recall makes it that much worse.

Yesterday, GM North America President Alan Batey said "The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been." Here's how that happened.

What cars are affected? As of yesterday, the recalls included the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5 and Pontiac Pursuit (Canada); the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion; the 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR; the 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice; and the 2007 Saturn Sky.

What exactly is the problem? GM says that a heavily-weighted key ring or rough roads can move the ignition switch out of the run position, cutting off the engine and electrical power and possibly halting the front airbags from deploying. Here's part of a statement from the company:

If the [ignition switch] torque performance is not to specification, and the key ring is carrying added weight or the vehicle goes off 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.

GM says they are currently aware of 23 front-impact crashes involving just Cobalts and G5s in which the problem may have caused or contributed to the airbags' non-deployment.

So it was the drivers' fault for having too much crap on their keychains. No, it was GM's fault for making a car with the potential to shut off during driving, just like it's Ferrari's fault for making cars that catch fire sometimes. It was also GM's fault for not recalling this when they knew about the problem. We'll get to that in a bit.

How did the fatalities happen? The six deaths originally attributed to this problem when the recall just affected the Cobalt and G5 all occurred following high-speed front end crashes on unpaved roads. With the additional models, the death toll has risen to 13, although it's not immediately clear if those seven deaths happened under the exact same circumstances.

How did this come to light? The first recall for the Cobalt and G5 was issued Feb. 13. About a week later, USA Today reported on the details of a settled lawsuit filed by the family of fatal crash victim and Cobalt driver Brooke Melton, 29. In their story, the newspaper included details from a deposition that revealed GM has known about the problem for nearly a decade.

When did GM know about the problem? According to a timeline of events released yesterday, GM learned of one incident in 2004 prior to the car's launch where a Cobalt lost power because the key moved out of the "run" position when the driver inadvertently contacted the key or steering column. Other engineers were able to replicate the problem.

However, "After consideration of the lead time required, cost, and effectiveness of each of these solutions, the (inquiry) was closed with no action," automaker says.

So they could have fixed this before they sold any Cobalts? Yes.

Why didn't GM order a recall in 2005? After the Cobalt went onsale as a 2005 model, GM employees received more reports of Cobalts powering down during driving. As a result they issued a service bulletin on all cars affected by the recall that advised mechanics to install an insert for the key ring that prevents the key from moving up and down. However, only 474 customers received the key inserts after they brought their cars in for service.

What about this confusion with the part numbers? Unfortunately, the new ignition switch had the same part number as the old, faulty one. As USA Today put it, "that means it wouldn't have been obvious to the company or to a dealer or repair shop whether a switch was the older design or the, presumably safer, newer configuration."

Did the correct switch make it into newer versions of these cars? Yes, around 2007 or so, though it's not exactly clear in the timeline.

When did the crashes start happening? NHTSA notified GM of the first ignition-related fatal crash in 2007. By the end of 2007 GM was aware of at least four crashes where the key was not in the proper "run" position. The Cobalt was discontinued in 2010. GM began an investigation that sought to understand the problem in 2011 that lasted until the recall was ordered this year.

What could happen to GM as a result of this? According to Automotive News, federal regulations say that if an automaker notices a safety problem they have five days to notify NHTSA of their recall plan or face a fine of up to $35 million.

NHTSA has been taking heat from this as well, with Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts telling the New York Times that the government's system for noticing safety problems needs to not be like "looking through a rearview mirror." Markey asked NHTSA to issue a new rule requiring automakers to provide the "detailed underlying documents that first alerted the manufacturer to the potential problem," he said.

Why is this so bad for GM? This is the absolute last kind of publicity any automaker wants, but it's especially stinging for GM. The bailout is still fresh in the public's minds, and many are still sore over the fact that they were still owned by the government until about three months ago.

With the strongest product line they have had in decades, GM is trying to shed its decades-earned reputation for massive bureaucracy, institutional arrogance, and lackluster quality. GM's Batey says "today's GM is committed to doing business differently and better," but it's still a nasty reminder of how things used to be.

GM may say that this was "old GM," legally a different corporation than the bankrupt one, and that "new GM" does things differently. But "new GM" has been around since 2009, and a recall on this known problem still didn't happen until this month. At the same time, I have to give the General some credit for being transparent and nothing but apologetic since this went public.

Perhaps more damaging is the litigation angle. Toyota ended up paying out a staggering $1.3 billion to settle lawsuits related to unintended acceleration, and in some of those cases the drivers were probably at fault. If this recall grows, and the death toll related to it rises, it could be extremely costly for GM.

Timeline of events related to GM ignition system recall, 2004-2013

022414 13054 Chronology

Top photo credit AP