WASHINGTON — Federal safety regulators decided not to initiate a formal investigation of problems with the ignition switches of Chevrolet Cobalts and other cars even after an investigative group reported that it knew about 29 complaints, four fatal crashes, and 14 field reports that showed the problem was preventing air bags from deploying, according to a memo released by House investigators on Sunday.
A House subcommittee will open hearings Tuesday, looking into why government investigators never realized there was a generic problem with the ignition systems of the Cobalt and other vehicles that could switch off if the key was bumped, shutting down the engine and disabling the air bags.
The findings about the complaints and crashes appeared in a PowerPoint presentation dated Nov. 17, 2007, found among the 6,000 pages of documents submitted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in answer to a request by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But officials at the safety agency’s Office of Defects Investigation, to whom the presentation was given, told committee staff investigators that “the panel did not identify any discernible trend and decided not to pursue a more formal investigation.”
The committee also revealed Sunday that Delphi, the supplier that made the ignition switch, told General Motors in February, 2002, before the first vehicle to use the switch even hit the road, that the part did not meet General Motors’ specifications.
The hearing will be held by the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.
On Sunday, the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.) said, “The problems persisted over a decade, the red flags were many, and yet those responsible failed to connect the dots.”
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Tim Murphy (R., Pa.) said that General Motors and the safety agency had produced 235,000 documents so far in response to extensive requests from the committee, and that “although we have had the documents for less than a week, they paint an unsettling picture.”
Mary Barra, the chief executive of GM, and David Friedman, the acting administrator of the agency, are scheduled to testify.
The committee leadership is particularly interested because Mr. Upton is an author of a 2000 law, the TREAD Act, that was supposed to improve the government’s ability to spot defects that caused deaths.
In that case, it was faulty Firestone tires on slightly top-heavy Ford Explorers that made the vehicles prone to roll over. Scores died before any trend was recognized.
In the Cobalt case, the committee report said that General Motors knew it had a problem with the ignition switches, now linked to at least 13 deaths, even before the first model that used the switch hit the road.
The problem is mostly linked to the Chevy Cobalt, and Cobalts in model years 2005 to 2007 have been recalled.
But it was also used in the Saturn Ion, and according to the committee, “A pre-production report for the MY 2003 Saturn Ion identified issues with the ignition switch,” including “low detent plunger force” — in other words, a spring that was not strong enough to hold the ignition in “run” position.