Feds demand answers from GM on recall defect

(CNN) — Regulators are demanding General Motors answer, under oath, three questions: When did the automaker discover some cars have dangerously faulty ignition switches? What does it know about the problem? And what will it do about it?

A letter this week from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to GM follows the company’s decision in recent weeks to recall more than 1.36 million cars over the problem.

The switches may unintentionally move from the “run” position to the “accessory” or “off” positions, resulting in a loss of power and limiting brakes, steering and airbags.

GM said it is aware of 31 crashes and 13 deaths that may be linked to the problem in vehicles from the 2003-07 model years.

NHTSA’s action comes amid criticism that GM and safety regulators were too slow to initiate a recall after signs of trouble surfaced a decade ago.

GM last month issued an unusual public apology and executed sizable recalls in two stages.

It also provided NHTSA with a five-page chronology that began with GM’s discovery in 2004 of an incident involving a Chevrolet Cobalt that lost engine power. The chronology runs through the beginning of this year.

But on Tuesday, NHTSA asked the company to fill in the blanks.

It sent GM a letter demanding the manufacturer answer 107 questions by April 3. Failure to do so would expose GM to a potential $35 million fine, the maximum allowed.

The auto industry and NHTSA, at times, have over the years been accused by advocates of moving too slowly or not aggressively enough to address certain safety concerns.

The issue came to a head last decade over motorist complaints around unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. The Japanese manufacturer wound up issuing massive recalls, paying record fines, defending itself in huge lawsuits, and overhauling how it deals with U.S. regulators.

Since that multi-year investigation, the industry has been quicker to identify problems in many cases and issue recalls, and NHTSA has made improvements in how it handles those matters.

Still, not all issues are resolved without controversy.

In its letter to GM, NHTSA demands a list of documents and records, including engineering drawings, field reports, consumer complaints, lawsuits against GM, and transcripts of deposition testimony by any GM employee, former employee, consultant or expert witness.

It also seeks internal emails and records about the company’s deliberations about the problem.

GM spokesman Alan Adler said the company has been in contact with NHTSA about the request.

“We always cooperate and we fully intend to do everything they’re asking by the time they’re asking,” he said. “The intent is to comply with their date.”

GM’s new chief executive, Mary Barra, has said the company acted “without hesitation” and that it went “well beyond” the recommendation of technical experts.

But in its chronology, GM said some company engineers knew of the problem with the switch 10 years ago.

Barra said the problems were first brought to the attention of her team “a few weeks ago” and that she led a committee that acted immediately when informed about the problem.

In the company’s apology, GM North American President Alan Batey admitted in a statement last month: “The process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been.”

Even that acknowledgment is the subject of a NHTSA question — Describe in detail the ways in which GM’s process “was not as robust as it should have been” and GM’s plans, if any, to change its process.”

On Thursday, former NHTSA administrator and longtime safety advocate Joan Claybrook asked GM to be forthcoming when notifying car owners about a recall.

“It is imperative that GM’s letter to owners be a true safety alert, emphasizing the real possibility of death or severe injury,” she wrote in a letter to the company.

The recall includes the Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR, Pontiac’s G5 and Solstice, and Saturn’s Sky and Ion.

GM said dealers will replace the ignition switch to prevent “unintentional or inadvertent key movement.” Until that is performed, vehicle owners should use only the ignition key with nothing else on the key ring, GM said.

CNN Money’s Chris Isidore and Peter Valdes-Dapena contributed to this report.

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