52 Million Airbag Inflators Could be Recalled by NHTSA
On September 5, 2023, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a filing regarding its initial assessment that airbag inflators manufactured by ARC Automotive and its licensee Delphi Automotive Systems are defective.
To date, at least 7 people have been injured and 1 person has been killed in the U.S. and Canada by the rupturing airbag inflators, which were produced from 2000 to 2018, NHTSA said.
The NHTSA initially issued a request for the inflators to be recalled in May, but ARC Automotive denied the request, insisting that the regulator was overstepping its authority and calling the ruptures “occasional or isolated failures.”
Why Does the NHTSA Want an Airbag Recall?
NHTSA requested the recall following an 8-year investigation which included extensive testing on ARC airbag inflators. The investigation was ramped up after the July 2016 death of a driver who had been hit in the neck by flying shrapnel.
It was initially estimated that approximately 67 million air-bag inflators were potentially defective, but the NHTSA dropped the number to 52 million to correct for “over-inclusive responses” reported by some auto manufacturers.
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What's the Problem with ARC Airbag Inflators?
Airbag inflators are small metal devices that send compressed gas into an airbag, forcing it to inflate during a crash. During manufacturing, one part of the inflator is welded onto 2 pressure vessels.
However, in some cases, an excess metal known as a “weld slag” can be pushed outward along with any other debris, blocking the opening that shoots gas into the airbag, and causing pressure to build up. Over-pressurization of the inflator has the potential to cause it to rupture, resulting in metal fragments being ejected into the vehicle's cabin.
Why are ARC and Delphi refusing to comply with the recall?
ARC Automotive wrote in a response letter that NHTSA’s recall request is too broad and based on hypothetical scenarios rather than any objective technical or engineering conclusion. The company says that weld slag has not been confirmed as the root cause in any of the 7 incidents linked to its airbag inflators. The response letter described the incidents as isolated events, not a systemic problem.
“To the extent any root cause could be identified in these ruptures, ARC believes they resulted from random ‘one-off’ manufacturing anomalies that were properly addressed by vehicle manufacturers through lot-specific recalls, all with NHTSA’s approval,” ARC said in the letter.
In response, NHTSA countered by accusing ARC of minimizing the severity of the issue, pointing to recalls by other automakers as evidence that the industry does indeed view the defective airbag inflators as a serious problem.
“An inflator that explosively ruptures, propelling metal fragments at a high velocity into an occupied passenger compartment of a motor vehicle — and into the occupants themselves — cannot simply be dismissed as a normal manufacturing anomaly, with vehicle owners left uninformed yet bearing the risk of the peril they and their occupants face,” NHTSA said.
Which Vehicles Would be Affected by the Recall?
The NHTSA has identified at least 12 auto manufacturers that used the airbag inflators in question in their vehicles: Stellantis, BMW, Tesla, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Kia, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Toyota, and Volkswagen.
The recall request includes airbag inflators manufactured from 2000 to January 2018. At that point, ARC began installing small borescopes ― tiny cameras used to identify weld slags ― which appear to have fixed the problem. NHTSA said it is not aware of any ruptures of an ARC airbag made after the company installed the borescopes.
Several automakers have initiated their own recalls for defective airbag inflators. The first was a 2017 BMW recall covering 6 variants of the BMW X5. Another 2017 recall affected Ford Mustangs and F150 pickup trucks. General Motors recalled the Chevrolet Malibu, Traverse, Buick Enclave, and GMC Acadia autos. Volkswagen recalled various Audi and VW models.
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