The US government has increased pressure on Tennessee-based ARC Automotive to recall 67 million potentially dangerous air bag inflators by ordering the company to answer questions under oath and threatening fines if it doesn’t. will answer.
NHTSA argued that the recall was justified because two people in the United States and Canada were killed and at least seven others were injured by ARC inflators, which can explode with excessive force and eject shapnel. The eruptions, which first occurred in 2009, continued as recently as this year.
The special order from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asks several questions about whether ARC expects any of its inflators to fail in the future, and whether it has informed customers about the risk.
The agency wants Knoxville-based ARC Automotive Inc. to recall the inflators, which destroy a metal canister. But ARC refused, setting up a possible court battle.
ARC maintains that no safety defect exists, that NHTSA’s demand is based on an assumption rather than technical conclusions and that the agency does not have the authority to order a parts manufacturer to make recalls.
NHTSA quickly concluded that the inflators were defective. The next steps are the final conclusion, public hearing and potential lawsuit asking a judge to order a recall.
Because ARC inflators can be in the driver and passenger front air bags, people traveling in at least 33 million vehicles in the US could be at risk.
In the order, NHTSA asked ARC to explain whether it expects the inflators to break due to something more than “one-off” random manufacturing problems. More than 1 million ARC inflators have been recalled due to what the company described as an isolated manufacturing problem.
The order also ordered the company to estimate how many inflators will break while in use in the US in the future, and it asked ARC why it changed its inflator manufacturing process in 2018 to install a scope which can detect if welding debris is blocking the inflator holes.
The NHTSA argued that byproducts from welding during manufacturing could block a hole inside the inflator canister designed to allow gas to escape to quickly inflate the air bags in a crash. The pressure can build up to the point where the canister bursts.
Messages were left Thursday seeking comment from ARC. The company must respond by June 14 or face a maximum fine of $131.6 million and potential criminal penalties.
Michael Brooks, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group, said NHTSA will go back and connect the dots to counter what ARC said in its response to the recall request.
The agency, he said, seems to be trying to tell ARC that other inflators may break in the future. “They’re just looking for an admission from the ARC that it’s going to happen again,” Brooks said.
The company, he said, would find it difficult to argue that there would be no more problems. “I don’t know that it’s something that they can legitimately state, that there’s not going to be another inflator blowout,” Brooks said. “There is a high possibility of another destruction of this type. Probably not many of them.”
NHTSA also wanted to know why ARC added the scope to its manufacturing process in 2018, and demanded to know which ARC employee approved the decision. “I think they’re trying to get at what the ARC decision is based on and does it suggest there’s a defect in the population of inflators that were manufactured before that date,” Brooks said.
The agency said in the recall request letter sent to ARC in April that it was not aware of any ruptured inflators manufactured after the scope was installed.
Owners of vehicles made by at least a dozen automakers – Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Hyundai and Kia – are left to worry if their vehicles contain driver or front passenger inflators. through ARC.
Because ARC supplies inflators that are attached to other manufacturers’ airbags, there is no easy way for car owners to determine if their inflators are made by ARC. Neither NHTSA nor ARC nor the automakers have released a full list of affected models.
One of the people who died after the inflator exploded was Marlene Beaudoin, a 40-year-old mother of 10 from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who was hit by metal shards when her 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV was involved in a minor age crash in 2021. He and four of his sons were on their way to get ice cream. The sons were not hurt.
In a response letter to NHTSA earlier this month, ARC said no automaker has found a defect common to all 67 million inflators, and there is no known cause of inflator ruptures.
The ARC standoff has sent automakers scrambling to determine how many of their vehicles have inflators. Many said they are still pulling information from later model years to determine which vehicles have the affected inflators.
From 2017 to 2022, ARC problems caused seven small recalls from automakers. Earlier this month, General Motors announced a recall of nearly 1 million more.
Top photo: (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File, File)
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