The U.S. government's auto safety watchdog likely is looking into whether General Motors was slow to report problems that led to 13 deaths and a massive recall of small cars, some built in Lordstown.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the authority to fine the company at least $35 million for not being forthcoming with information.
GM on Tuesday increased to nearly 1.37 million the number of small cars being recalled to fix faulty ignition switches linked to multiple fatal crashes. The company also issued a rare apology, saying its process to examine the problem was not robust enough.
A recall initially issued on Feb. 13 had focused on 780,000 Lordstown-built Chevy Cobalts and Pontiac G5s with model years from 2005 to 2007. Also recalled were Pontiac Pursuits, sold only in Canada. On Tuesday, the company added recalls of another 587,000 small cars, none of them built in the Lordstown plant.
The latest recall is focusing on model year 2003-07 Saturn Ions; 2006-07 HHR SUVs; 2006-07 Solstice Saturn Skys.
The safety agency said in a statement Tuesday that it is reviewing GM documents and has questions about when GM found the ignition defect and when it notified regulators. Documents filed by GM show it knew of the problem as early as 2004.
"NHTSA will monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues and will take appropriate action as warranted," the statement said. A spokesman wouldn't say what action is being considered or comment further.
"The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been," GM North America President Alan Batey said in a statement. "Today's GM is committed to doing business differently and better."
GM says a heavy key ring or jarring from rough roads can cause the ignition switch to move out of the run position and shut off the engine and electrical power. That can knock out power-assisted brakes and steering and disable the front air bags. The problem has been linked to 31 crashes and 13 front-seat deaths. In the fatalities, the air bags did not inflate, but the engines did not shut off in all cases, GM said.
The automaker is advising customers driving the vehicles to use only the ignition key with nothing on the key ring until the correction can be performed.
As part of the recall, GM is taking steps to address customer concerns and working with its suppliers to increase parts production and accelerate availability.
GM will notify all affected customers that in addition to recalling their vehicles and performing repairs at no charge to them, GM said the company and its dealers will work with customers on an individual, case-by-case basis to minimize inconvenience associated with the recall.
The company is notifying customers through written letters, and using media and social media teams to reach automobile owners.
According to a chronology of events that GM filed Monday with NHTSA, the company knew of the problem as early as 2004, and was told of at least one fatal crash in March of 2007. GM issued service bulletins in 2005 and 2006 telling dealers how to fix the problem with a key insert, and advising them to warn customers about overloading their key chains. The company's records showed that only 474 vehicle owners got the key inserts.
GM thought the service bulletin was sufficient because the car's steering and brakes were operable even after the engines lost power, according to the chronology.
By the end of 2007, GM knew of 10 cases in which Cobalts were in front-end crashes where the air bags didn't inflate, the chronology said.
In 2005, GM initially approved an engineer's plan to redesign the ignition switch, but the change was "later canceled," according to the chronology.
GM spokesman Alan Adler said that initially the rate of problems per 1,000 vehicles was too low to warrant a recall. But he said safety information was kept in different places in the company 10 years ago.
"The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been," said Batey. "Today's GM is committed to doing business differently and better. We will take an unflinching look at what happened and apply lessons learned here to improve going forward."