Congress, the Justice Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are all investigating General Motors Co.’s recall of 2.6 million vehicles for an ignition switch defect which can cause the car to stall and deactivate the air bags. GM links the defect to 13 deaths and more than two dozen crashes.
GM CEO Mary Barra and NHTSA chief David Friedman testify about the recall before a House subcommittee Tuesday and a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.
This is a timeline of key events, based on documents from GM, NHTSA and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
2001: A report on the Saturn Ion, which was still in development, notes problems with the ignition switch, but says a design change solved the problems.
February 2002: GM approves the ignition switch design, even though it was told by Delphi — the supplier — that initial tests showed the switch didn’t meet GM’s specifications.
2003: A service technician reports that a Saturn Ion stalled while driving, and that the weight of the owners’ keys had worn down the ignition switch.
Late 2004: The Saturn Ion’s cousin, the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, goes on sale. GM learns of at least one crash where a Cobalt engine lost power after the driver inadvertently moved the key or steering column. GM engineers replicate the problem in test drives. An inquiry is opened within the company, but closes after potential solutions are rejected.
February 2005: GM engineers meet to consider making changes to the ignition switch after stalling reports. But an engineer says the switch is “very fragile” and advises against changes.
March 2005: The engineering manager of the Cobalt closes an investigation, saying an ignition switch fix would take too long and cost too much, and that “none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.”
May 2005: A GM engineer proposes changing the design of the key so it won’t tug the ignition switch downward. The solution is initially approved but later cancelled.
July 29, 2005: Amber Marie Rose, 16, dies in a frontal crash in her 2005 Cobalt. A contractors hired by NHTSA found that the Cobalt’s ignition had moved out of the “run” position and into the “accessory” position, which cut off power to power steering the air bags.
September 2005: GM’s legal staff opens a file on the Maryland crash.
December 2005: GM tells dealers to inform owners of Cobalts to take excess items off their key chains so the key isn’t pulled downward. Also, inserts placed on customers’ keys can prevent the keys from shifting while in the ignition. The bulletin includes the 2005-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2003-2006 Saturn Ion, 2006 Chevrolet HHR, 2006 Pontiac Solstice and the 2005-2006 Pontiac Pursuit, which was sold in Canada. Warranty records show that only 474 owners got those key inserts.
April 2006: A GM engineer signs off on a redesign of the ignition switch. The new switch goes into cars from the 2007 model year and later.
October 2006: GM updates the dealer bulletin to add vehicles from the 2007 model year.
March 2007: A group of GM employees learn from NHTSA staff of the 2005 fatal crash. By the end of the year, GM has data on nine crashes — in four, the ignition had moved from the run position to the accessory position.
August 2007: NHTSA contracts with Indiana University to study a 2006 Wisconsin crash in which two passengers died. The report finds the ignition in the 2005 Cobalt was in the accessory position and the air bags didn’t deploy.
September 2007: Chief of NHTSA’s Defects Assessment Division proposes an investigation of air bags failing to deploy in the Cobalt and Ion. Two months later, a NHTSA panel decides not to open a formal investigation, saying that the air bags aren’t failing at a higher rate than peer vehicles.
2009: GM decides to change the key’s head from a “slot” design to a “hole” design to reduce downward force. The key is changed for the 2010 model year — the last year the Cobalt is sold.
2010: After a NHTSA investigation, GM agrees to repair power steering motors in a little more than 1 million 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007-2010 Pontiac G5s.
2011: GM launches a new investigation into 2005-2007 Cobalts and the 2007 Pontiac G5 to determine why their air bags didn’t deploy in crashes.
2012: GM widens the investigation, but it closes without reaching a conclusion.
December 2013: Incoming CEO Mary Barra learns about the ignition switch defect.
January 2014: A committee of GM executives approves a recall.
Feb. 13: GM recalls 780,000 compact cars, including Chevrolet Cobalts, Pontiac G5s and Pontiac Pursuits from the 2005-2007 model years.
Feb. 25: GM expands the recall to include Saturn Ions and three other vehicles. The recall now totals 1.6 million vehicles worldwide.
March 5: NHTSA demands that GM turn over by April 3 documents showing when it found out about the ignition switch problem. Barra promises employees an “unvarnished” investigation into what happened.
March 10 — A House subcommittee says it will hold a hearing, eventually set for April 1, on the GM recalls. The Justice Department is also conducting a criminal probe.
March 17 — GM announces three new recalls of 1.5 million vehicles, as part of an effort to assure buyers that it’s moving faster to fix safety defects.
March 18 — Barra apologizes for the deaths that occurred. She appoints a new global safety chief.
March 28 — GM expands the small car recall to include 971,000 vehicles from the 2008-2011 model years, which may have gotten the defective switches as replacement parts.
March 31 — GM recalls 1.5 million vehicles, including the 2010 Cobalt and the 2004-2007 Ion, because the electronic power-steering assist can suddenly stop working.
April 1-2 — Barra, NHTSA acting chief David Friedman to testify before Congressional committees.
April 7 — GM expects replacement switches to be available at dealerships. The company says the repairs could take until October.