GM Ignition switch debacle - Car Talk Community question


#1

GM is taking a beating over their handing of the defective ignition switches- and I don’t want to start a debate about their actions or lack thereof. But if there was a really widespread issue- it sure seems like it would have come up as an issue on this forum. I did a quick search and did not see any obvious problems that look- in retrospect- as a bad ignition switch. Do any of the long time sages here recall any posts that pinpointed the problem long before NHTSA?


#2

Not a direct answer to your question, but those of us in the “aftermarket” (your local independent repair shops) tend to see pattern failures as well. We saw a lot of Ford ignition modules and DPFE EGR sensors fail. GM lower intake manifold gaskets were a regular thing. Certain cars were more prone to head gasket failures than others.

As for ignition switches, I’ve seen them fail on almost every kind of car. But if I had to pick one that stands out I’d say I’ve replaced more Honda ignition switches than any other brand of car.


#3

GM is guilty (IMO) of knowing more about the problem than they’ve let on but the flip side of that is maybe automatically blaming GM for a death “linked to” the switch may not be entirely accurate.
Speeding while drunk and/or not using the shoulder harness would get most of the blame IMO.
Airbags are designed to be a supplement; not the cure all for every accident.

I also agree about the Honda switches being problematic. Certain years were recalled for those switches but the problem exists on year models before and after the ones covered by a recall.
Poor electrical engineering as far as I’m concerned. They’re running too much electrical current through a plastic switch with engine management, fuel pump, and so on being routed through that switch instead of the main power source being routed through a relay.


#4

The brothers have commented on ignition switches. They have warned us to keep our key rings light. Heavy key rings with lots of keys could damage the switches or cause the engine to shut off. I thought they were wrong. They didn’t seem to specify GM vehicles and they never said that GM had defective switches. I guess they assumed that the GM cars themselves were all defective.

How many of us noted that government ownership didn’t seem to encourage honesty?


#5

I remember a school bus driver,who had this enormous keyring that hung from the ignition switch on our 59 Chevy schoolbus,must have been a least 1/2lb of keys on that thing,wore the paint off the dash,but as far as I know never had any trouble.Had many Hondas and never had ignition switch problems,I believe many people are Ham fisted when it comes to delicate items,I used to break heavyduty handles off of tractors and construction equipment,if they were made of anything besides steel(I guess I assumed they would stand the gaff and didnt throttle back) so my motto now is use a light touch,its not made from “indestructo” alloy{of course poor design doesnt help either}-Kevin


#6

Heavy key rings causing undue wear on the ignition switch has been a problem for a long time. There was one story in “Tales from the Model Garage” which appeared in Popular Science from the 1920s through 1970. I believe this episode was from a late 1950s or early 1960s publication. At any rate, the wife never had a problem starting the car or the car stalling, but the husband always had problems. The car stopped in heavy traffic and was blocking an intersection. Gus Wilson, the proprietor of the Model Garage was called and he responded with the wrecker. Before he could get the car hooked up, the man’s wife appeared, jumped in the car and started it right up.
Gus got the car into his shop and went through everything, but couldn’t find anything amiss Finally, he decided to look under the dashboard. He hung his droplight on the key that was in the ignition switch and the engine immediately stopped running. Gus then realized that the man had a key ring with a lot of keys including the ignition key. His wife only had the ignition key on her key chain. A new ignition switch plus a suggestion to the customer to put his car key on a separate ring solved the problem.
I would think that if this ignition switch problem was known over 50 years ago that GM and other manufacturers would test the switches with heavy key rings.


#7

Reminds me; I noticed a coworker had this hefty key chain with all imaginable keys and puppets hanging from it. I also knew the car she drives, a Honda. One day she was late and was telling everybody else how her car would not start and then finally it did start. I told her have the ignition switch checked and sure enough that was it. Later she asked me how did I know?

Nobody had ever told her not to hang dumbbells from an ignition switch I guess.


#8

In our lawyer-saturated environment, these kind of things become cash-cows and take on a life of their own…Before 1975 or so, there were NEVER any recalls for defective vehicles. You paid your money and you took your chances…Cars cost $3000 and you bought a new one every 3 years…High-school kids with a part-time job bought the trade-in cars for a grand or less, sometimes much less…Crappy brakes, no seat belts, no air bags, Six turns lock to lock steering, 60,000 people a year killed in car wrecks, it was just background noise. Now, every fatal accident is investigated to see if there is some way to turn it into a million dollar settlement…Somebody dies, but someone else gets rich…


#9

On our 58 Chevy, the ignition switch was designed so you could just remove the key after starting. You didn’t need it anymore. Just pull it out. Can’t remember if the 59 Pontiac was the same way. Of course then came the column locks for theft, etc. etc. and more complex switches.


#10

There was a big increase in automobile recalls because Toyota paid $1,400,000,000 to the US Government to settle a criminal trial for stalling the recalls for unintended acceleration. Now all manufacturers prefer to err on the side of caution rather than risk such a huge fine. We are seeing a larger number now because this is just starting. In time, there will be fewer than there are at this moment.


#11

I’ve got a feeling a lot of the Toyota delay was they had no idea what the problem was so how would you recall and fix something if you didn’t know what to fix?


#12

That would not surprise me. It must be very difficult to determine when to set a recall when you run a for-profit business. Still, they got smacked big-time and it certainly wasn’t politics. Apparently there was enough information to show that they waited way too long and the Justice Dept. Made an example out of them. Good news! It forced GM to fess up to their errors. Had Toyota be fined a mere few million, GM would never have flinched.


#13

I think GM just waited way too long before they finally owned up to the problem. Ford did the same thing when their vehicles were burning up due to a bad cruise control switch attached to the brake master cylinder. It was bad engineering at it’s worse and Ford denied the claims until it was proven to be the problem. The “powers that be” at all automotive manufacturers would like to see problems “swept under the rug” but some come to their senses more readily than others.


#14

Hopefully someday soon the car company execs will realize that the internet is here and their marketing departments can no longer make chronic problems disappear… even though I suspect their VPs of marketing are still telling them they can.

I agree with other posters here that Toyota’s delay was due to their simply taking a long time to track down the cause. GM clearly knew the cause for many years. Toyota was “made an example of”, while GM got off relatively easy… so far. I think the “deep pockets” theory had a part in that.

The internet has changed the rules of disclosure and of the political implications. I think some car execs are having a hard time catching up to that fact. That can happen when you spend all your time in boardrooms.


#15

The internet can cause confusion in diagnosing the cause of problems and determining the true extent, @tsm. A significant segment of the population jumps at every opportunity to cash in on class action suits. The unintended acceleration issue with Toyotas became very confusing as various claims for losses due to not so similar problems. And of course, a great many people who found themselves seemingly at fault in a wreck could throw all the blame on their car and turn their lemon into lemonade.


#16
The internet can cause confusion in diagnosing the cause of problems and determining the true extent

Confusion for whom? Maybe in the internet community. But it surely should have ZERO influence in the investigators who’s task was to find the problem.


#17

It is not clear that GMs top executives at the time knew about the ignition problems nor is it clear that today’s executives idi either. It does appear that there was a group of lower level managers that not only knew about it, they tried to hide it, even going so far as to use the same part number for a redesigned switch. You might reasonably assume that the recently publicized firings were a response to that. But you will never find out who was fired from GM, and rightly so. The affected employees have a right to privacy. In the past, companies have gotten in trouble for disclosing why people were fired.


#18

ZERO influence… Which problem was Toyota looking to solve? Floor mats? Proximity of brake and accelerator pedals, electronic throttle control, or various other complaints? The automobile companies may often recognize that problems will just go away when the media hype finds a new target.

The Firestone/Ford debacle seems indicative of the problem. Lack of attention to tire pressure on vehicles with a high center of gravity driven at freeway speeds by those more accustomed to sedans. And now we have a tire pressure warning system to annoy us but where does a driver go when that light pops on?

Spectacular videos of accident scenes brings on public outrage that must be assuaged. The public wants spectacular remedies and penalties and not a scolding for lack of attention to maintenance and poor driving habits.


#19
The Firestone/Ford debacle seems indicative of the problem. Lack of attention to tire pressure on vehicles with a high center of gravity driven at freeway speeds by those more accustomed to sedans. A

NO…the tire pressure was only part of the problem. The explorer had a too narrow stance. About 4" too narrow according to the NTSB. The next generation Explorer addressed that concern and widened the Explorer by 4"…no more problems.


#20

So, I’m wondering if GM’s discharge in bankruptcy filed June 1, 2009, makes the new GM immune from prosecution for any deliberate cover-ups before then? And what about civil claims? Is the new GM immune? Did they wait this long to make sure it was too late for anyone to get to them?

I wonder about the ignorance of drivers, and how it contributes to these sorts of claims. In Toyota’s case with runaway acceleration all anyone had to do was put the transmission in neutral and they could bring the car to a controlled stop. The big popular media case was a California Highway patrol member and his family. He couldn’t figure that out?

With GM the ignition switch the problem shut down the engine, so there was no power steering and only very limited braking. That’s somewhat different, but didn’t this failing switch give any symptoms in advance, like looseness or difficulty starting? And how long can a person willfully or negligently abuse a part before the responsibility starts to shift?

I wonder about this kind of stuff.