DETROIT — The U.S. government's auto safety watchdog says it will investigate whether General Motors acted quickly enough to recall 1.6 million older-model small cars, in which problems have led to 13 deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the authority to fine the company at least $35 million for not being forthcoming with information.
GM on Tuesday doubled to 1.6 million the number of small cars being recalled to fix faulty ignition switches linked to multiple fatal crashes. The company also issued a rare apology, saying its process to examine the problem was not robust enough.
"The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been," GM North America president Alan Batey said in a statement.
On Feb. 13, GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). Then on Tuesday, it added 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007), and Chevrolet HHR SUVs, and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007).
GM says a heavy key ring or jarring from rough roads can cause the ignition switch 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. The problem has been linked to 31 crashes and 13 front-seat deaths. In the fatalities, the air bags did not inflate, but the engines did not shut off in all cases, GM said.
The NHTSA said in a statement that it is reviewing GM documents and has questions about when GM found the ignition defect and when it notified regulators.
According to a chronology of events that GM filed Monday with NHTSA, the company knew of the problem as early as 2004, and was told of at least one fatal crash in March 2007. GM issued service bulletins in 2005 and 2006 telling dealers how to fix the problem with a key insert, advising them to warn customers about overloading their key chains. The company's records showed that only 474 vehicle owners got the key inserts.
GM has hired an outside law firm to find out what went wrong in the ignition recall case. But GM spokesman Alan Adler wouldn't say whether the firm will look into other safety and process problems that occurred around the same time. "We are focused on this case," he said.