GM Renaissance Center
(General Motors)

General Motors may have known about faulty ignition switches in some of its small cars earlier than it originally reported. In documents published by the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Wednesday, the automaker said a 2001 report acknowledged a problem with the ignition switch during pre-production testing of the Saturn Ion. A report from 2003 also acknowledged that there was an issue with a Saturn Ion in which the car stalled while a service technician was driving it. The technician pointed out in the report that the Ion owner had multiple keys on the key ring and that the “additional weight of the keys had worn out the ignition switch.”      

GM previously said it found out about the ignition switch issue in 2004 in Chevrolet Cobalt cars, Reuters reports. GM announced the recall of more than 619,000 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 cars in early February and two weeks later, added more than 748,000 Saturn Ion, Saturn Sky, Pontiac Solstice and Chevrolet HHR models to the recall, bringing the number of affected vehicles to more than 1.3 million. Engines in these cars can unexpectedly shut off if the ignition key is taken out of the run position, which can happen if the key ring the ignition key is on is too heavy. Additionally, if the key is moved out of the run position, it’s possible that the air bags might not deploy in a collision. GM said in late February it was aware of 13 deaths possibly related to the air bags not deploying in affected vehicles, though the Associated Press reports that only 12 deaths may be related to the problem, as GM said Wednesday it had miscounted the victims.    

Congress and the Justice Department are looking into the timing surrounding the recalls, and when GM originally knew about the ignition switch problem. The Detroit News reports, “The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan has launched a preliminary investigation on behalf of the Justice Department into whether GM notified regulators of complaints in a timely fashion, according to people briefed on the matter.”

Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, says, “What's interesting about this case is the evidence showing NHTSA had prior knowledge of GM's ignition switch problem on at least two occasions. This means either the evidence wasn't striking enough to indicate a valid concern at the time, in which case GM has a lot more latitude in failing to act sooner, or it suggests NHTSA's own review processes were ineffective, despite the changes made at the safety agency after the Ford/Firestone recall back in 2000.”

GM said Wednesday it will give owners of affected vehicles $500 cash toward the purchase or lease of a new 2013, 2014 or 2015 GM vehicle, as well as provide owners with a free courtesy vehicle to drive until the parts are available for the repair if they are worried about driving their recalled car.

GM advised owners to only use the ignition key until the ignition switch can be replaced. “Until the recall repairs have been performed, it is very important that you remove all items from your key ring, leaving only the vehicle key. The key fob (if applicable), should also be removed from your key ring.”

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