Your Car Is Used. Should GM Still Be Responsible For A Mistake It Made In The Factory?

At what point is an auto manufacturer freed from all responsibility for the car it makes and sells? Griffin says it’s almost certain that the incorrect body control module (BCM) was inserted at the factory, and that GM’s mistake cost him $459 to fix. GM says the former owner (Griffin’s friend) must have swapped out BCMs and therefore it’s “out of our control,” but Griffin argues that’s pretty much impossible.

On New Years Eve I took my 2005 Chevy Cavalier into a local dealership. The airbag light was on, meaning the airbag system was malfunctioning. They couldn’t digitally diagnose the problem because it came back with a blanket “System Configuration Error.” Upon closer inspection, they realized the VIN (vehicle ID number) of my car didn’t match the VIN on the body control module (BCM), the computer that controls most of the car’s electrical functions (wipers, door locks, etc.). And because the VIN was wrong, it couldn’t be reprogrammed, to correct my faulty airbag system.

Five hours and $459 later, I had a new BCM, programmed with the correct VIN, and a fully operational vehicle (airbags and all).

Problem is, why wasn’t the correct BCM in my car from the start? Had it been, it would have been a simple software fix. No new parts, and probably a lot cheaper. (And maybe the airbags wouldn’t have malfunctioned in the first place!) It’s a used car (50K miles), but I bought the car from a friend (at 25K miles) and know the full vehicle history. Programming a BCM takes hours, and both keyless entry devices need to be reprogrammed too, so it would have been fairly obvious to my friend or me if the BCM were ever changed out.

Jan. 2, 2009: I called GM customer service to ask for a reimbursement of my repair costs. After all, even though my car is out of warranty, it had a faulty part installed the entire time it was under warranty.

Jan. 6, 2009: My case was handed to Ashley with the GM Customer Assistance Center, who told me, “Unfortunately there will be no assistance on this, uhh, being that someone else had to, must of put the wrong body control module in there.”

Essentially she claimed the previous owner must have replaced the original BCM with a scrap yard part. I told her I’d call her back even though she said nothing I could say would change the decision.

So I looked into the issue further, and found two key reasons why GM’s hypothesis is false:

1) Once a VIN is programmed into a new BCM, the VIN can’t be changed, so switching it from one car to another (like at a scrap yard) would have been impossible.

2) My car’s VIN is 1G1*J*F12F257XXXXXX. The VIN on the BCM was 1G1*W*F12F257XXXXXX. (The last 6 hidden digits are identical, and only one letter is off.) This sounds more like a typo than a transplanted BCM to me. Ashley claimed my BCM came from “like a Monte Carlo, or an Impala, etc.” She based this on the fact that the “W” indicates a W-body style (Monte Carlo, Impala), while a Cavalier is a J-body. What she failed to recognize, though, is that Monte Carlos and Impalas have a different prefix; they start with “2G1W,” not “1G1W.” You can’t simply change one digit in the VIN and get a different brand of vehicle. The number as it was listed on my BCM is an invalid VIN, and the dealership confirmed that no other cars on the road share the unique last 8 digits of my VIN.

Clearly, this BCM did not come from another vehicle, so I called Ashley again, twice, and finally reached her on Jan. 21. I shared these revelations in the case, but she persisted:

“Unfortunately, sorry. It’s out of our control,” she said.

And argued with me: “But you bought the vehicle used, from somebody else, and it was the wrong body control module installed, and that’s not our fault.”

“We look at everything very carefully when it comes to building our vehicles, and you know, a mistake like that is very highly unlikely, and plus, based on the fact that you’re the second owner, and you purchased it from someone else, you know, it’s not a strong case for us to reimburse you for it.”

She closed with strong irony: “Thank you for choosing Chevrolet. Have a great day!”

So the message I’m getting is that once a GM vehicle becomes a used GM vehicle, they’re no longer accountable for their name on the car. I understand they’re not responsible for work done out of warranty, but when a mistake has clearly been made at the manufacturing level, I expect corporate accountability.

(Photo: heymarchetti)