NHTSA Demands Recall of 52 Million Airbag Inflators
Federal auto safety regulators are urging the recall of about 52 million airbag inflators used in vehicles made by Toyota and at least 11 other automakers, calling the parts unsafe and susceptible to rupturing without warning.
The NHTSA has scheduled a public meeting for October 5, 2023, on its recommendation to recall the airbag inflators, which were manufactured by ARC Automotive and Delphi Automotive Systems. In response to the agency’s demand, ARC has thus far declined to issue a recall, saying that it did not believe a defect existed and that NHTSA’s finding was not based on “any objective technical or engineering conclusion.”
How Many People Have Been Injured by Defective Air Bag Inflators?
NHTSA said at least 7 people had been injured and 1 killed in the U.S. and Canada as a result of faulty ARC/Delphi airbag inflators. The most recent incident involving a rupture occurred in Michigan in March 2023, when the driver of a 2017 Chevrolet Traverse sustained severe facial injuries.
“An airbag inflator that fails by rupture not only does not perform its job as a safety device, but instead actively threatens injury or death, even in a crash where the vehicle occupants would otherwise have been unharmed,” NHTSA said.
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Which Vehicles Were Equipped with Faulty Airbags?
Of the 52 million airbags under threat of recall, 41 million were made by ARC and 11 million were manufactured by Delphi using a design licensed by ARC. The parts were produced in China, Mexico, and at ARC's headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee, and were used in vehicles made from 2000 to 2018 by the following automakers: Toyota, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, Kia, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Stellantis, Tesla, and Volkswagen.
NHTSA Probe of ARC Inflators Echoes Takata Controversy
The issue with ARC airbag inflators comes on the heels of the NHTSA's investigation of inflators made by Takata, a Japanese supplier, that were determined to explode violently without warning, even when the airbags were not deployed in a crash. In that case, investigators found that Takata used a propellant that could degrade over time due to humidity.
In total, the Takata air bag defect was linked to over a dozen deaths in the U.S. alone. More than 70 million vehicles equipped with Takata inflators were recalled in more than 40 countries, making it one of the largest recalls in history.
After the Takata recall, which forced it to pay millions in fines to U.S. regulators, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and was sold to Joyson Safety Systems.
Takata had been responsible for the cost of replacing the defective inflators; however, the bankruptcy filing left automakers to pick up the bill. Approximately 11% of the affected airbags still haven’t been replaced, according to the NHTSA.
What Causes ARC Airbags to Rupture?
Air bag inflators use ammonium nitrate, an explosive substance, that is compacted into tablets stored in a metal cylinder. In the event of a severe collision, the tablets are designed to create a controlled explosion that rapidly fills the airbags with gas.
However, ARC’s manufacturing process left bits of welding material, known as weld slag, inside the cylinder, the NHTSA investigation found. If the airbags are deployed, the weld slag has the potential to clog the exit opening and cause an explosion violent enough to forcefully eject metal debris into the passenger cabin.
ARC maintains that the weld slag hypothesis has been ruled out as the cause of at least 2 of the 7 incidents cited by the NHTSA and that it has not yet been found definitively to be the cause of the other 5.
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