The problem, which has been linked to 14 crashes and 1,100 complaints, affects four models: the Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Pontiac Pursuit and Pontiac 4.
GM has blamed the fault on a supplier that is partially owned by Toyota. Jamie Hresko, GM vice president of quality, said: "We will have to see who takes financial responsibility," he said. "But this is a risk you sometimes take when you buy a complete system from a supplier." He added: "It tends to occur in older models out of warranty. Recalling these vehicles is the right thing to do for our customers' peace of mind."
GM informed the US car safety regulator, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about the recall on Monday when it finished investigations that began in 2009.
The problem comes at a bad time for GM, which hopes the €1.3bn investment in its European Opel/Vauxhall subsidiary will convince European governments to guarantee its remaining loans.
The fault arguably comes at a worse time for Toyota, which is in the process of recalling more than eight million cars around the world due to accelerator and braking problems.