Last week, under threat of a federal investigation, GM recalled almost every Hummer H3 it had built because of a potentially dangerous design problem. Our analysis of a government database shows complaints of similar problems from owners of Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, two trucks built with the same components as the fire-prone H3 and in the same plant. Why haven’t those trucks been recalled too?
Jalopnik scoured through nearly 1,200 complaints in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website and in online forums to discover that owners have been reporting fires on Colorado and Canyon trucks for years — but no recall has happened yet.
The problem seems to revolve around one tiny component, as recalls often do. In the case of the Hummer H3, it’s a minor electrical system involving a connector, a resistor, and the grounding block in the heating and air-conditioning blower motor assembly. The whole system can short out, causing anything from a slight melting of the wiring harness all the way up to and including a major fire that leaves the car a blackened husk.
Daily Kanban editor and BloombergView contributor Ed Niedermeyer pointed out on Twitter last week that a few owners of the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon reported a curiously similar problem. How common was the problem? According to our analysis of the Office of Defect Investigations database, nearly 70 owners reported fires they believe to be related to the heating and cooling system.
The problem can be easy to miss at first. It can look like nothing more serious than a discolored resistor, as it does in this photo provided to us by Dan Miller. Miller filed his own complaint to NHTSA, the government’s road-safety regulator, after the resistor caught fire in his Chevy Colorado.
In its announcement for the H3 recall, GM said that the problem stems from overheating caused by drivers using their blowers at “high- and medium-high speeds.” But the issue also runs in the other direction. Drivers using their blowers at higher settings seems to be partly a result of the overheating problem, too, not just a cause. The pattern, as related by many Hummer owners in their NHTSA complaints, is that the system shorts out in sequence. First, the initial fan setting goes out, then the second, then the third, and finally, the fourth.
And then you may have a fire on your hands.
As we saw yesterday, General Motors has actually known about the problem in the H3 for quite some time. We can’t pinpoint exactly when the company became aware, but we can find out when the first complaint came into NHTSA. That first complaint came in September 2008, and it was brief:
Fire started in the back of my glove box.
From that, the complaints increased. Many of them were downright harrowing, including one driver who saw his or her Hummer H3 burn completely to the ground and then couldn’t even open the doors.
For the 2006 model year alone, there were 41 complaints involving the same, smoldering component. That’s out of 204 complaints in all, or 20 percent.
The proportion would be much higher if we threw out the many useless and petty complaints to the NHTSA, like the person whining that there’s a bit of chrome on the hood that sometimes reflects the sun a little too brightly.
But many of the NHTSA complaints about resistor fires make note that the problem was clearly widespread and had occurred multiple times on the same vehicle. One report reads: “The technician” —presumably at a GM dealership — “informed me that this happens often with these vehicles and he doesn’t understand why there isn’t a recall.” The driver sounds almost despairing by the end.
There needs to be an investigation and recall so that no one gets hurt. If I had a passenger in my vehicle at the time of this incident, they would have received burns on their feet from the wiring malfunction.
And even if the technicians themselves hadn’t passed the issues up their management chain, GM’s corporate headquarters was definitely notified at least once about the issue in the Hummer, according to another complaint:
GM finally notified NHTSA of the issue with the Hummer this past January, but NHTSA alleges that at the time, GM was either “miscounting” the number of complaints, or was somehow unaware of their numbers. Over the next six months, NHTSA officials determined that the problem was in fact much larger. They threatened to launch a formal investigation unless GM initiated a recall.
But what took NHTSA six months to discover took us only two days. And in those two days we also saw that an HVAC-related fire problem isn’t just affecting the Hummer H3. Judging by customer complaints it’s also affecting two pickup trucks, the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon.
The H3, Colorado, and Canyon are all very similar vehicles. They were all built on the same mechanical underpinnings. They used the same transmissions and engines. They were also all built at the same Shreveport, Louisiana, plant (which no longer belongs to GM but is now the hopeful site of Elio three-wheeler production).
Yet the Colorado and Canyon haven’t been recalled. Hundreds of thousands of them are still on the road— the company sold about 160,000 Colorado trucks in 2005 alone.
Right now, they’re all running during the peak of summer heat when the air conditioning is most likely to be used. Further searches for complaints about the Colorado and Canyon twins reveal melted wires, smoking components, and big fires. And potentially even more damning, the problem appears to have started even earlier in the Colorado than it did in the Hummer H3.
The first complaint mentioning a fire dates from an incident in March 2007:
And the complaints continued. One called the problem “chronic,” suggesting that the NHTSA reports only hint at the scope of the issue.
The malfunctions and fires even appeared to be replicating the ones in the Hummer H3, with the same sequence of failures up to a fire.
As with the Hummer H3, this wasn’t just an issue of dumb drivers constantly running their fans to the highest speeds, or an isolated incident of one driver experiencing electrical shorts in a sequential fashion:
And another, as one Colorado owner emailed us:
The symptoms of the issue are the blower fan only works on high. The settings on dial are 1, 2, 3 and 4. With a bad connection, it shorts out the other settings.
All these complaints sound identical to the ones in the Hummer H3, again and again. And yet GM still hadn’t issued any sort of recall mirroring the one enacted on the very similar Hummer.
The complaints begin with the 2004 model trucks, the year the Colorados and Canyons went on sale. Curiously, however, they all seem to cease with trucks built after 2008 (production for the Hummer H3 started winding down around 2009 as the brand was shelved).
That could be a statistical anomaly. It could also be because GM saw there was a problem and swapped the component, much like the company was alleged to have done with the faulty ignition switches found in the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small cars. That defect resulted in incredibly tense congressional hearings, lawsuits, U.S. Department of Justice investigations, and massive recalls.
We don’t really know. When we asked GM about it, a spokesman for the company told us that it does not give out any information about its dealings with safety regulators.
“GM routinely has discussions on open investigations with NHTSA,” the spokesman said, “and we do not characterize the nature of those discussions.”
Top graphic credit Jason Torchinsky