Switchgate: Cobalt Driving Lessons

by Henry Payne

Amid Washington’s media hysteria, General Motors has called in NASA engineers to verify its claim that recalled Chevy Cobalts are safe to drive — with only a key in the ignition — until owners get to a dealer to install a new ignition switch.

“In 2010, the space agency was (also) asked by the U.S. Transportation Department to investigate whether Toyotas . . . might have electronic defects that contributed to incidents of sudden, unintended acceleration,” reported USA Today. “The investigation found no electronic issue that could cause the problem.”

That would be news to USA Today readers. And Washington Post, ABC News, and CNN viewers.

Cheering the Holder Justice Department’s punishment of Toyota last month with a $1.2 billion fine, not one of these news outlets — or dozens of others — mentioned that NASA had absolved the Japanese automaker of the primary charge that electronically malfunctioning accelerators caused Toyotas to careen out of control in 2010.

It’s deja vu all over again. Lacking concrete information, news outlets are once again jumping to conclusions about GM’s recalled vehicles by relying on trial-lawyer-fed safety advocates like Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety. “Our advice to consumers is, ‘park it now,”‘ Ditlow told a credulous Reuters reporter, challenging GM’s advice.

This is the same Clarence Ditlow who approved NBC News’ scandalous rigging of GM pickups to explode two decades ago. The same Ditlow who claimed that Toyota’s electronic throttles were at fault in sudden acceleration deaths.

Ditlow and his media parrots are likely to be proved wrong — again — when NASA reviews Cobalt ignitions. I drove a 2006 Cobalt SS this week with the original, faulty ignition. As advised by GM, I drove it with only a key in the ignition. Additional weight on the keychain can cause the ignition to rotate back into “accessory” position, thus causing the car to stall.

Contrary to frenzied claims that this causes the car to veer out of control, the car remains drivable. The brakes work, as does the steering. However, the steering loses its power making it more difficult to turn — which was surely disorienting for the many impaired drivers among Switchgate’s victims. Regardless of the circumstance, GM should be held accountable for these incidents (the faulty ignition may well have its roots in GM’s acrimonious relationship with supplier Delphi in the mid-2000s, reports the Detroit News).

However, after a day driving the Cobalt with only a key in the ignition — over Detroit’s worst roads (and they are bad) — the ignition never faltered. My observation is that the switch’s quality is not on par with Japanese rivals of the same period (thus Detroit’s reputation gap) — it’s Off-to-Accessory-to-Start turns are soft while a Honda Civic ignition, for example, clicks sharply into place.

Nevertheless, the public should be reassured that Cobalts are safe and will not fly out of control. Just as electronic gremlins never caused Toyotas to suddenly accelerate.