GM designed safe switch in 2001, chose a cheaper revision for production

Safety advocates suggest GM chose cheaper design due to cost considerations.

General Motors appears to have engineered a safe ignition switch in 2001, but subsequently chose to use the defective design for production vehicles affected by the recent wave of recalls.

Documents spotted by advocacy group Center for Auto Safety point to two separate engineering drawings that were drafted in 2001 for the 2003-model-year Saturn Ion. The first drawing, dated September 2001, describes a long detent spring and plunger, while a drawing dated October 2001 reveals the defective design with a short detent spring.

The first drawing reportedly matches the redesigned part that was introduced in 2006 without adopting a new part number, a move which caused confusion among internal and outside investigators.

"The rejected long detent spring and plunger design became the silent remedy GM subsequently introduced into production in late 2006 without changing the part number, thus secretly fixing the models made after that date," CAS director Clarence Ditlow wrote in an open letter to GM CEO Mary Barra (PDF). "But General Motors also did not recall the earlier models that it already knew were failing on the highway, causing death and injury, as it was obligated to do under law."

Critics have accused GM of maintaining a "culture of cover-up." The secret redesign lends credence to the theory, though it is still unclear if the move was a demonstration of engineering incompetence or the result of a high-level decision to brush a problem under the rug and avoid taking responsibility for multiple deaths.

"The conclusion we draw from examining the two different designs of the ignition switches under consideration in 2001 is that General Motors picked a smaller and cheaper ignition switch that cost consumers their lives and saved General Motors money," Ditlow added. "The documents show that when General Motors changed the ignition switch in 2006, it did not have to develop a new more robust design because GM engineers had already designed the safer switch that GM previously rejected in 2001."

GM has promised to disclose the results of its own internal investigation, headed by an outside attorney, though the process is expected to take several more weeks.

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