A lengthy new Bloomberg report outlines multiple instances where rental agencies contacted General Motors about Chevrolet Cobalts and other GM small cars they had on hand which were potentially defective. The earliest of these instances took place more than seven years before the automaker issued a recall for 2.6 million of its cars for faulty ignition switches.
The driver of a brand new Chevrolet Cobalt rented from Vanguard’s Alamo rental agency lost control of the car on a warm, clear sunny day. The car drifted across lanes and got caught up in the gravel median where it flipped over, killing the driver. Police reports indicate they were wearing a seatbelt, but the airbag didn’t deploy. As a result, a Vanguard claims adjuster contacted GM, saying “due to the serious nature of this accident we feel that it is imperative that you open a claim and inspect this vehicle for possible defects.”
The Vanguard incident is just one of many similar cases, Bloomberg says. Customer-service call transcripts, warranty records, letters and police reports obtained show that Enterprise had also warned GM of a potential safety defect in the Cobalt after the airbags failed on more than one instance. Avis and Hertz also reported Cobalts in their fleet had been crashed.
Industry analysts say GM should have paid closer attention to warnings sent to them by rental companies, as they were some of the first groups of individuals to use the vehicles en masse.
“The Cobalt was a popular, cheap model for rental-car companies,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety, “This highlights why they should be vigilant about handling recalls.”
Another incident dug up by Bloomberg focuses on the fatal crash of a woman and her ex-husband in Bee Cave, Texas in March 2005. The couple lost control of their rented Saturn Ion on a rural road, killing them both. Their teenage daughter was riding in the back seat and suffered serious brain damage. A police officer on the scene said the crash was caused by a “braking and steering defect.” Enterprise, the owner of the vehicle, asked GM to investigate the incident and inspect the car. Two months later, a company hired by Enterprise inspected the car and found it didn’t have a defect or malfunction.
A January 2006 crash in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, resulted in the death of the driver of a 2006 Cobalt rented from Enterprise. The driver slipped off the road and hit a tree, causing fatal injuries. A claims adjuster for rental agency asked GM “to set up a claim for a possible defect in the 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt that they rented to a customer,” and noted the “party of deceased wants vehicle inspected for defects. The air bags did not deploy and the police report states the deceased hit tree for unknown reason.”
Files show conversations exchanged between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and General Motors covering 81 different crashes. The NHTSA asked for more information about fatalities that may have involved air-bag failures, including the rental agency crashes, but never opened a formal investigation into the matter, which may have pinpointed a safety defect earlier on.
“It’s really like a test fleet,” said Maryann Keller, a former board member at rental agency Thrifty Automotive Group. “You put a lot of miles on very quick, and any initial defects on the car rise to the surface, and, in fact, that’s the way auto companies were supposed to use this. They were supposed to be able to detect defects very early.”
GM spokesperson Alan Adler declined to comment on specific crashes when asked by Bloomberg. He noted the company has changed how it handles reports of product defects raised by rental car companies and other fleet customers. The company has also said it reorganized its engineering department to help fast-track the handling of safety risks and made changes within its legal department so similar issues are better communicated to executives going forward.