DETROIT/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As General Motors Co recalls 1.6 million vehicles that have defective ignition switches linked to at least 12 deaths, it faces another potential risk - this time in the spare parts market.
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 checked.
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 defective part.
"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 likely."
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.
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 parts.
NHTSA has received at least one complaint from a GM customer noting the problem.
"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.
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 September.
"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 more tension.
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