At least six people have died because of accidents involving faulty ignition switches in General Motors compacts, prompting the big automaker to recall 778,562 of its 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and 2007 Pontiac G5 compacts in North America.
Recalls rarely involve flaws that kill people; many are linked with no accidents or injuries.
But some notable recalls in recent years have been connected with deaths, including a Jeep recall last year, Toyota's "sudden acceleration" recalls in 2010 that were blamed in part on driver error and a Honda multiyear recall for faulty airbags.
This recall is for switches that can shut off the car if jarred and the remedy is to replace the switch. It will be difficult to get done because the cars are old enough to be in the hands of second, or even third owners. Industry and safety officials' experience shows that many subsequent owners don't register with automakers, so it's tougher to find them with notice of a recall.
"GM is going to spend a considerable amount of time, money and effort locating and fixing the defective cars," says Kaitlin Wowak, University of Notre Dame assistant professor of management, who specializes in supply chain risks.
GM said it knows of at least 22 accidents linked to the ignition switches in the nearly identical Cobalt and G5. The cars were discontinued years ago but still can be found as cheap used vehicles for low-budget shoppers.
The recall is a black eye for GM, just as it is rebuilding its image now that the government no longer owns any of its stock and its new CEO is the first woman to head a big automaker.
"GM will be dealing with the repercussions for an extended period of time," Wowak says.
In addition to jarring events, heavily loaded key rings and can pull the switch mechanism out of the "run" position into "accessory" or "off," GM says, causing the cars to stall and lose power assist for steering and brakes. In some cases, it also can prevent the airbags from deploying.
GM says the switches may not have met its specifications.
"This latest GM recall involves 22 crashes and six fatalities tied directly to a design issue. Those are the numbers reported thus far, but with over 750,000 affected vehicles it's possible more related incidents will be discovered now that it's a widely reported problem," says Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book:
GM knows of five front-impact crashes and six fatalities in crashes where the front airbags did not deploy, though it said all were high-speed crashes where the probability of serious or fatal injuries was high in any case, the company told Reuters. It also said that alcohol use and not wearing seat belts figured in some of the fatalities.
GM says dealers will replace the ignition switch to remedy the problem. GM is urging owners to take non-essential items off of their key ring until the switch is replaced.