Fatal flaws slam US car industry into reverse

Faulty ignition, steering and brakes, disabled airbags ... GM has recalled 15.8m vehicles this year, but for some the measure comes too late

It is five years today since General Motors (GM), America’s largest car manufacturer, filed for bankruptcy at the height of the financial crisis. The company recovered, thanks to a $49.5bn (£29.5bn) bailout from the US taxpayer, and has gone on to reclaim its place as one of the most profitable firms in the world. Now, however, GM and its fellow auto giants face a different kind of disaster.

Last week, Ford – GM’s Detroit neighbour and closest rival – announced the recall of 1.4 million of its vehicles. Approximately 1.1 million Ford SUVs are thought to be at risk of a loss of power steering, while a further 200,000 Ford Taurus sedans are considered prone to corrosion issues. Yet Ford’s recall woes pale in comparison to their competitor’s.

Two weeks ago, GM recalled 2.4 million vehicles due to safety concerns, taking its recall tally for this year to a record 13.8 million vehicles in the US alone – more cars than the company sold globally in the whole of 2013. Worldwide, GM has recalled more than 15.8 million cars in 2014. And regulators are reportedly investigating potential flaws in some 2 million more GM vehicles that are still on the road.

The most recent GM recall covered possible faults in seat belts and transmissions. The cars in question have not been linked to any deaths, though the same cannot be said of previous recalls. It recently emerged that GM was aware for more than 10 years about a defect in some vehicles, which could cause their engines to cut out without warning.

The company has admitted that the issue is connected to 13 road deaths, though one report based on US federal crash data said as many as 303 may have died as a result of the faulty ignition switches. The company has disputed this, saying the report only looked at raw data and did not evaluate the reasons. “Without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation,” the auto giant said in a statement.

GM is believed to have noticed the fault in 2001, during the launch of the since-discontinued Saturn Ion, when it found that under certain circumstances an ignition switch could abruptly shut off power to a moving car, affecting steering and brakes, and even disabling airbags. The company did not recall any of the affected vehicles until earlier this year.

In one case, in October 2006, two Wisconsin teenagers were killed after the GM Chevy Cobalt they were riding in struck a tree. The driver survived the crash, but 15-year-old Amy Rademaker, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, died because her airbag failed to deploy. Her friend Natasha Weigel, 18, was sitting in the back, and died from head injuries 11 days later. Yet GM has only recognised those cases in which airbags failed: Miss Rademaker is among the 13 victims counted in the firm’s official death toll; Ms Weigel, whose seat lacked an airbag, is not.

A PowerPoint presentation given to GM engineers in 2008, and recently released to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, gave a lengthy list of words and phrases to be avoided when communicating internally about potential vehicle faults. GM feared leaks of embarrassing emails to the media or regulators, and banned phrases such as: “This is a lawsuit waiting to happen”; ,“death-trap”; “dangerous”; “life-threatening”; “Hindenburg”; “grenade-like”; and “rolling sarcophagus”.

For failing to address the potentially deadly safety defects for more than a decade, the government last month fined GM $35m, the maximum permitted under US law. Congress is considering an increase in the maximum penalty, to $300m. The recalls are thought to have cost GM about $1.7bn so far this year – although, since its 2009 bankruptcy, the company has made profits totalling $22.5bn.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there