GM Knew Chevy Cobalt Ignition Could Turn Itself Off, Released Car Anyway

If you’re a carmaker and you find out the vehicle you’re about to release had an ignition-switch issue that could not only stop the car’s engine but render the power steering, air bags, and power brakes useless, you probably wouldn’t release that car. It’s a shame you weren’t a General Motors executive 10 years ago.

Chevy Cobalts make up a good portion of the 1.6 million GM vehicles recalled over the ignition issue that has been tied to at least a dozen deaths and could be responsible for many more.

And, according to court documents uncovered by the Wall Street Journal, GM knew about the problem when they were prepping for the release of the 2005 Cobalt, but opted to release the car upon the highways anyway, assuming that drivers would be able to safely coast stalled cars off the road.

In a deposition for a lawsuit tied to one of the aforementioned dozen deadly accidents, in which vehicles’ air bags failed to deploy because the ignition had been accidentally turned to the “off” position, a program engineering manager for the 2005 Cobalt admitted that GM had made a business decision to release the Cobalt without fixing the known safety issue.

The victim of the fatal crash in this case was driving her Cobalt at around 55 mph when the ignition failed. While she is not around to testify, others who filed complaints with GM detailed how difficult, if not impossible, it was to steer their shut-down vehicles.

But in the 2013 deposition, the engineer says GM believed the drivers should be able to handle a car without power steering.

“We’ve sold vehicles for many, many years without power assist and the car was maneuverable and controllable,” he explained. “We’ve been through that several times, in fact, during this investigation looking at the car to make sure it still could be controlled.”

Another employee defended the carmaker, saying he tested the drivability of a turned-off Cobalt on his own and was able to successfully steer the vehicle.

“As long as the vehicle can still be controlled…the vehicle is still safe,” he said in the deposition.

Of course, there is a difference between someone deliberately turning off their ignition, knowing what to expect, and someone who is driving 55 mph whose car suddenly turns off and becomes difficult to steer.

Documents turned up earlier in the recall investigation show that some at GM were aware of problem as far back as 2001, before the first affected Saturn Ion vehicles were released.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that two plaintiffs in a suit against GM over the recalled vehicles have asked a federal court in Texas to compel GM to urge owners of these cars to stop driving them immediately.

“Any and every driver that is currently operating a recalled vehicle could fall victim to the defect, rendering the driver simply another tick on GM’s ever-increasing death tally,” reads the motion filed by the plaintiffs.

GM claims that these vehicles are safe to drive, but that drivers should not have a keyring with other keys attached to the one for their car. The additional weight of heavy keychains and other keys has been cited as a cause in some instances where the vehicles turned off suddenly.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.