DETROIT — U.S. safety regulators are demanding that General Motors turn over reams of documents and other data showing what the company knew and when it found out about a dangerous ignition problem that has been linked to 13 car-crash deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating how GM handled the problem, which triggered the global recall of 1.6 million older-model compact cars. GM has acknowledged it knew of the ignition troubles a decade ago but didn't recall the cars until last month.
In a 27-page order sent to GM Tuesday, NHTSA demanded pictures, memos, electronic communications, engineering drawings and other data to answer 107 questions. The reply, which must be signed under oath by a company officer, is due on April 3. GM spokesman Alan Adler said Wednesday that the company is cooperating.
NHTSA wants the documents to determine if GM delayed its response or withheld evidence. In either case, it could fine GM up to $35 million. Automakers are required to inform NHTSA of safety defects within five days of discovering them. Such a fine would be a record for NHTSA, but essentially is pocket change for GM, which made $3.8 billion last year.
Included in the order is a series of questions about when GM discovered the ignition problem in 2004 and the identity of employees involved in finding and replicating it. The order asks what fixes GM considered "including the lead time required, costs and effectiveness of each of the solutions."
On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Two weeks later it added 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007).
Facts surrounding the recall are embarrassing for GM and could scare away consumers. Since leaving a painful bankruptcy in 2009, GM has cut bureaucracy, improved vehicle quality and is quicker to recall cars when problems occur. However, its admission that recall procedures were lacking 10 years ago shows how the old culture can still haunt the automaker.
In an effort to reassure employees and customers, GM's new CEO Mary Barra on Tuesday promised an "unvarnished" internal investigation to figure out what happened and prevent it from recurring.
"We want our customers to know that today's GM is committed to fixing this problem in a manner that earns their trust," GM's Adler said.
Even as NHTSA pressures GM for details, safety advocates say the agency bears some blame for the automaker's slow recall response. NHTSA said Wednesday in a statement that it's a data-driven agency "and we will take whatever action is appropriate based on where our findings lead us."
The maximum fine NHTSA can charge was more than doubled last year under legislation approved by Congress after Toyota unintended acceleration recalls. But critics say it still isn't enough to deter bad behavior.
GM says a heavy key ring or jarring from rough roads can cause the ignition switch in the recalled vehicles 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. In the fatalities, the air bags did not inflate, but the engines did not shut off in all cases, GM said.
It was unclear whether the ignition switches caused the crashes, or whether people died because the air bags didn't inflate.