DETROIT — General Motors’ deadly ignition switch flaws emerged from an effort to improve its cars.
As the company began developing new small cars in the late 1990s, it listened to customers who complained about “cheap-feeling” switches that required too much effort to turn. GM set about making switches that would work more smoothly and give drivers the impression that they were better designed, a GM switch engineer testified in a lawsuit deposition in the spring of 2013.
The switches, though, were too loose, touching off events that led to at least 13 deaths, more than 50 crashes and a raft of legal trouble for the Detroit automaker.
Former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, hired by GM in March to investigate the switch problems, told a congressional subcommittee last month that GM wanted each small-car ignition to “feel like it was a European sports car or something.” After years of lagging behind the Japanese, GM was eager to make better, more competitive small cars.
But as it turned out, the new switches in models such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion can unexpectedly slip from “run” to “accessory,” causing engines to stall. That shuts off the power steering, making cars harder to control, and disables air bags in crashes. GM says the problem has caused at least 13 deaths, but some members of Congress put the death toll near 100.
The problem led GM to recall 2.6 million small cars in February, and forced the company to admit it knew about the switch troubles for more than a decade before taking action. It has touched off federal investigations and prodded GM to review other safety issues, leading to 54 recalls this year covering 29 million vehicles.