DETROIT – A Tennessee company could face litigation with US auto safety agencies after denying a request to recall millions of potentially dangerous airbag inflators.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is asking Knoxville-based ARC Automotive Inc. to recall 67 million inflators in the United States because they could explode and hurl shrapnel. At least two people were killed and seven others were injured by malfunctioning ARC gas generators in the United States and Canada, the agency said.
The recall would affect a large portion of the 284 million vehicles currently on US roads, but the percentage is difficult to determine. Some have driver and passenger ARC inflators.
In a letter released Friday, ARC said it had reached the tentative conclusion after an eight-year investigation that ARC’s front driver and passenger inflators had a safety defect.
“Airbag inflators that eject metal fragments into vehicle occupants instead of properly inflating the attached airbag pose an unreasonable risk of death and injury,” Stephen Ridella, director of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, wrote in a letter to ARC.
However, ARC responded that there was no defect in the inflators and that all issues were related to isolated manufacturing issues.
The next step in this process is for NHTSA to schedule a public hearing. The company could then force a recall in court.
“We disagree with NHTSA’s new comprehensive request because extensive field testing has not revealed an inherent defect,” ARC said in a statement Friday night.
Also on Friday, the NHTSA released documents showing General Motors is recalling nearly a million vehicles with ARC inflators. The recall affects certain 2014-2017 Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia SUVs.
The automaker says that an inflator explosion “can result in sharp metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants, causing serious injury or death.”
Owners will be notified by letter starting June 25, but no solution is available yet. You will receive another letter when one is ready.
GM says it will offer “free transportation” on a case-by-case basis to owners who are afraid to drive vehicles that are part of the recall.
The company said it is conducting the recall, which expands on previous actions, “with the utmost caution and with the highest priority of the safety of our customers.”
One of the two fatalities was a mother of 10 who died in a seemingly minor accident in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the summer of 2021. According to police reports, a metal fragment from an inflator struck her neck in a 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV.
According to NHTSA, at least a dozen automakers are using the allegedly faulty inflators, including Volkswagen, Ford, BMW and GM.
The agency claims that sweat residue from the manufacturing process can block an “exit hole” for gas released in a crash to inflate the airbag. Any clogging could cause pressure to build up in the inflator, causing it to explode and ejecting metal fragments, Ridella’s letter said.
But in a May 11 reply to Ridella, Steve Gold, ARC’s vice president of product integrity, wrote that NHTSA’s position was not based on an objective engineering or technical conclusion of failure, “rather, conclusive statements regarding a hypothetical blockage of the inflator port through ‘sweat slag.’”
He wrote that none of the seven inflator ruptures in the United States have been confirmed to be caused by welding debris. ARC claims that only five ruptured during use and that “the finding that there is a systemic and predominant defect here is not supported.” Population.”
Gold also writes that recalls must be performed by manufacturers, not device manufacturers like ARC. He wrote that NHTSA’s recall request exceeded the agency’s legal authority.
In a federal lawsuit filed last year, plaintiffs alleged that ARC’s inflators use ammonium nitrate as a secondary fuel to inflate the airbags. The propellant is pressed into tablets, which can expand and form microscopic holes on contact with moisture. Decomposed tablets have a larger surface area, causing them to burn too quickly and create too large an explosion, the lawsuit says.
The explosion can rupture a metal canister containing the chemical and send metal fragments into the cabin. Ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and as a cheap explosive, is so dangerous that it can burn too quickly even in the absence of moisture, the lawsuit says.
Plaintiffs allege that ARC inflators fell apart seven times on US roads and two more times during testing by ARC. To date, there have been five limited inflator recalls totaling approximately 5,000 vehicles, including three recalls by GM.
This story has been updated to clarify that the proportion of US vehicles on the road would be less than a quarter as some vehicles have ARC driver and passenger inflators.