Repair shop owners say it is still possible to purchase GM brand
ignition switches manufactured by Delphi Automotive carrying the
same parts number as the product at the center of the recall.
These switches may not be defective, but it is nearly impossible to
tell unless they are taken apart or the manufacturing history is
A spokesman for GM, which buys the switches from Delphi and sells
them under GM-owned brands, said the automaker was not clear whether
it had sold switches to parts dealers and was getting answers for
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, (NHTSA), which
is now carrying out an investigation into accidents linked to the
"We are in the process of responding to the very questions you are
asking, per our pledge to be fully cooperative with NHTSA," GM
spokesman Jim Cain said.
GM says ignition switches failed, turning off motors and disabling
airbags, when they were jostled or a key was weighed down, such as
by a heavy ring of keys. The parts were used in six older-model
vehicles, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion.
A search online by Reuters showed that the ignition switches are
available from distributors, listed for around $30 each. And
mechanics say it is difficult to tell whether these parts are the
defective ones or not.
That is because in 2007, a GM engineer agreed that Delphi could
change the ignition switch by making the internal spring tighter,
according to documents GM filed with NHTSA.
The change meant that if the key is weighed down it won't cause the
ignition switch to shift positions.
But neither GM nor Delphi changed their numbers for the part, GM
10392423 and Delphi D14611, an omission which industry insiders say
flies in the face of standard practice.
"When you make a change, you change the part number so everybody
understands what happened," said a former GM executive with
experience in service matters who asked not to be identified
discussing the recall.
There are no known cases of a defective part being put into a
vehicle in the past few weeks.
But mechanics say the use of the same number for the original and
corrected versions creates risk that could happen.
"From here, you'd have no idea," said Keith Evola, the owner of a
repair shop in Mt Clemens, Michigan, with 20 service bays.
He said a search of his ordering system showed the part was
available and there was no warning. A salesman at another company
who declined to give his name confirmed that. GMpartsdirect.com, an
independent dealer, showed the part for $24.71, and there was no
notice of a problem associated with it.
The auto parts market encompasses businesses from dealers' repair
shops to chain parts stores to junk yards, and tracking and
controlling inventory is difficult.
Daron Gifford, a partner with industry consultant Plante Moran, said
that there could also be parts made by independent companies, which
reverse-engineer parts and sell their own cheaper versions. If those
companies copied the bad Delphi switch, even more faulty parts could
still be in circulation.
"That aftermarket's really kind of crazy that way," Gifford said.
"That would be very hard to track, but that scenario is very
Delphi, whose largest customer is GM, said it has not sold any of
the parts into the aftermarket, which is the industry name for the
spare parts industry.
"We only supplied the part directly to GM or to their Tier 1
(supplier) for these specific vehicles," Delphi spokeswoman Claudia
Tapia told Reuters.
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NHTSA said it has been tracking the issue. "NHTSA is in close
communication with GM and its supplier Delphi to determine if other
vehicles are equipped with the components that are the subject of
this recall," the agency said in an email statement.
It did not comment specifically on the question of aftermarket
NHTSA has received at least one complaint from a GM customer noting
"I am concerned that Chevy might have fixed my 2008 ignition switch
with parts that might have been in stock for years, perhaps with
switches that were found to be defective in prior years," the
unidentified person wrote in a publicly available complaint
submitted to NHTSA, dated this month and referring to a 2009 repair.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating GM's handling of the
recall announced last month, in addition to NHTSA. Next week, both
chambers of Congress will hold hearings, at which GM Chief Executive
Mary Barra is scheduled to testify.
GM said it is working with Delphi to repair all cars included in the
recall. GM has said the first replacement switches will be available
April 7, but the recall may not be completed until October. Delphi
has said the replacement part cost is between $2 and $5 per switch,
and the parts swap can be done in minutes.
'A DIFFERENT SWITCH'
Charlie Miller, a mechanic and forensic engineer in Merigold,
Mississippi, studied the ignition switch on a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt
driven by Brooke Melton, 29, whose family sued GM after she died in
a March 2010 accident in Georgia.
Consulting for the Melton family, Miller found the key "functioned
entirely differently" from a switch with the same part number he
bought from a GM dealer.
GM settled with the Melton family for undisclosed terms last
"It was obviously a different switch," Miller told Reuters. "Yet it
had the same part number as the other."
He tested ignition switches issued in different years and determined
that the part had been changed without notice in 2007. In the newer
version, the ignition spring is 1.6 millimeters shorter, giving it
Miller said his team had the tools and expertise to pinpoint the
exact force each switch required to turn, but that no ordinary
person would be able to tell a difference between the parts without
taking them apart. Overseeing Miller's project was Mark Hood, who
said the identical part numbers would make sifting out the faulty
parts near impossible.
"I don't know what kind of containment they could do if they wanted
to purge all these parts from their system," said Hood, a forensic
engineer. "There is nothing to distinguish them."
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington and Paul Lienert
in Detroit, editing by Peter Henderson and Martin Howell)
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