June 13, 2014 at 9:27 pm

GM recalls 510,000 Camaros for ignition problem linked to 3 crashes

The Camaro recall affects the 2010-14 model years. GM says a driver's knee could accidentally turn off the ignition key, and disable air bags. (GM)

Washington — General Motors is recalling more cars — more than a half-million Camaros, in this case — for ignition key troubles.

The Camaro problem, affecting the 2010-14 model years, is similar to the defect linked to the delayed recall of 2.6 million older Cobalt, Ion and other GM cars — but not exactly the same.

GM said Friday a driver’s knee could accidentally turn off the Camaro ignition key, which would shut down the engine and disable power steering, power brakes and air bags.

In the larger recall involving Cobalts and Ions, a heavy key chain can cause the ignition key to turn off if the car hits a pothole or is otherwise jarred; the effect, however, is the same: the engine can shut down and power steering and brakes and air bags are disabled.

The Cobalt-Ion defect has been linked to at least 13 deaths and 54 crashes. As early as 2003, drivers reported bumping keys out of position in those cars.

The Detroit automaker has received reports of four minor injuries linked to three crashes in which Camaro air bags failed to deploy, said GM spokesman Alan Adler. GM doesn’t have conclusive evidence the air bags failed to deploy because the key moved to the “accessory” or “off” position.

It was one of four recall campaigns GM announced Friday. In total, the company has issued 38 recall campaigns comprising nearly 16.5 million vehicles worldwide this year, including 14.4 million in the U.S. That marks an all-time record number called back in a single year by GM. It’s about 20 times the number it recalled all of last year.

In those earlier recalls, the ignition switches did not meet GM’s specifications — and even when they were improved in 2006, they still let the key turn from the “on” position too easily.

The Camaro switches in the recall announced Friday are different and did meet GM’s standards. No other GM car has the same issue as the Camaro, the company said. GM said the problem in the Camaros may primarily affect drivers sitting close to the steering column. It was discovered by GM during internal testing.

GM will change the Camaro key to a standard straight key from one in which the key is concealed in a fob and is opened by pushing a button. The change will make the ignition key and fob independent of each other — attaching them with a key ring — so that inadvertent contact with the fob won’t turn the key from the “on” position.

GM said it expects to have parts in a couple of weeks.

“Discovering and acting on this issue quickly is an example of the new norm for product safety at GM,” said Jeff Boyer, vice president of GM Global Safety.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined GM $35 million last month for failing to recall the Cobalts and Ions for more than a decade. CEO Mary Barra fired 15 employees and disciplined five over the issue.

The Justice Department is investigating and a House committee will a hold a hearing on the issue next week with Barra and Anton Valukas, author of GM’s internal report into the issue.

The Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported Friday that federal prosecutors in New York have begun voluntary interviews with current and former GM employees named in the internal report. GM has turned over hundreds of thousands of pages of records. A person with knowledge of the matter confirmed that some interviews are taking place, but didn’t know how many. GM said it is cooperating but declined to comment.

Dave Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, noted the failure rate in the latest Camaro recall — three crashes with air bag nondeployments in more than 500,000 cars — was very small.

No matter the size of the issue, GM is recalling everything that could potentially be a problem.

“If there’s anything that’s suspicious, they are recalling it,” Cole said. “Automakers’ mindset now is, ‘Let’s empty the cupboard of anything that might be a problem.’ ”

GM in the past has been criticized for moving slowly or spending years studying safety problems and failing to act. Now, dozens of GM investigators are combing through any conceivable problem. Senior management is closely keeping tabs on the reviews and taking part.

In this case, GM reviewed all new and in development vehicles across its lineup to make sure its current ignition keys and switches had no problems — and the Camaro was the only issue that the review turned up.

Cole said automakers across the industry are taking similar approaches. Chrysler, for instance, used an outside auditor to review its safety procedures.

The auto industry is now on pace to set a record for most vehicles called back in a single year. To date, automakers have recalled more than 20 million vehicles; they may top the record of 30.8 million recalls set in 2004.

GM already has already set aside $1.7 billion to cover the costs of recent recalls and by the end of the month plans to announce a compensation plan for people injured or killed as part of the Cobalt and Ion ignition switch problem. Some Wall Street analysts think GM’s total costs could top $5 billion.

The automaker — which had just eight safety engineers last year looking at recall issues — now has more than 50 and has been methodically looking at all possible safety issues, which has led to a flurry of recalls in recent weeks.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com