According to a CBS News report, General Motors’ ignition switch defect arose from an effort to change the company’s cars.
In the late 1990s, when GM began developing new small cars, customers voiced their concerns about “cheap feeling” switches that were difficult to turn. So in response, GM redesigned the switches to work more smoothly, leading drivers to believe that the design was superior, according to 2013 deposition testimony of a GM switch engineer. The switches, however, proved to be too loose, were prone to slipping, and led to events that caused more than 50 collisions and the deaths of at least 13 people. Many more events and incidents have since come to light following the awareness of this problem and recall.
The drawback with the new switches is relatively simple to understand: they can unexpectedly slip from “run” to “accessory” and cause the engine to suddenly stall, which in turn shuts off the power steering and prevents air bags from deploying in the event of an accident. When the switch supplier, Delphi, told GM engineers that that the switches were problematic because they turned too easily, GM ordered the company not to change them because alterations might harm the switch’s electrical performance.
Eventually, the switches were approved, but were well below GM’s specifications for the force required to turn them, resulting instead in a smooth turning key that could easily slip out of position when jarred by the driver’s knee, a bump in the road, a swinging key chain, or even additional weight caused by extra keys on the same ring.
The safety issue has caused big problems for GM: more than 50 collisions and 13 deaths (so far) attributable to the faulty switch. It also led GM to review numerous safety issues, resulting in 54 recalls of 29 million vehicles in 2014 alone, and the year is only half over.