The United States government is reinforcing its efforts to compel ARC Automotive Inc., a car parts manufacturer based in Tennessee, to recall approximately 52 million potentially dangerous air bag inflators. However, despite persistent resistance from ARC, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) made a preliminary finding that the inflators – produced by ARC and under license by another unnamed firm – are defective. Consequently, the NHTSA has arranged a public hearing on October 5th before proceeding with its quest for a court-ordered recall.
The ongoing debate with ARC commenced in May when NHTSA asked the manufacturer to recall the inflators, which are linked to a minimum of seven injuries and two fatalities in the United States and Canada since 2009. However, ARC refused to fully recall these products, paving the way for legal action.
ARC staunchly maintains that no safety defect exists. The company alleges that the demands from NHTSA rely on hypothetical assumptions, not solid technical conclusions. Furthermore, ARC declares that the agency lacks the jurisdiction to mandate recall announcements from parts manufacturers.
Yet, NHTSA contradicts this stance in its initial decision document, stating that the air bag inflators could rupture when activated, resulting in dangerous metal debris being projected into the vehicle. This creates an unacceptably high risk of serious harm, or even death, to the occupants.
The regulatory agency presses ARC to recall inflators from both driver and passenger front air bags across numerous automakers. Despite the absence of an exhaustive list of affected vehicle models, NHTSA estimates that no fewer than 25 million of the 284 million vehicles on American roads are equipped with the problem inflators. This leaves the owners of vehicles from twelve auto brands, including Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Ford, worrying about the unknown safety risks.
Even though ARC balks at a full-scale recall, car manufacturers have organized seven smaller recalls since 2017 arising from individual manufacturing issues. Automakers bear ultimate responsibility for these recalls, including a recent recall by General Motors that affected nearly a million vehicles.
The initial assessment by NHTSA suggested that 67 million inflators required recall. Still, on Tuesday, the agency revised this figure to 52 million due to manufacturers reporting an overestimation during the investigation.
The agency’s fundamental concern is that the welding byproducts produced during manufacturing can obstruct a vent in the inflator designed to release gas swiftly to fill air bags during a crash. In the defective units, the blocked vent can trigger excessive pressure, causing the inflator to detonate.
NHTSA is focusing its recall efforts on inflators manufactured before 2018 when ARC installed monitoring mechanisms for welding byproducts and vents. As of April, the agency reports no knowledge of mishaps involving post-2018 inflators.
Nevertheless, ARC, which was acquired in 2016 by the Chinese real estate entity Yinyi Group, concedes it cannot guarantee against potential inflator ruptures.
The company argues that occasional or isolated failures are inherently possible despite industry regulation and manufacturer precautions. They stress that federal law doesn’t require complete immunity from field failures but aims to safeguard the public against unreasonable risks.
ARC advised that NHTSA, automakers, and fellow airbag manufacturers had been kept informed of any inexplicable inflator ruptures throughout the eight-year investigation.
However, NHTSA confirmed on Tuesday it was aware of seven ARC inflator ruptures in the U.S, with at least two international incidents. The agency noted that a rupture had occurred as recently as March 22, and that such incidents have been happening outside groups that were previously recalled.
In response to ARC’s stance, NHTSA reiterated that an inflator eruption that propels metal fragments into vehicle occupants cannot be dismissed as a manufacturing abnormality. Equally, vehicle owners cannot be left uninformed and vulnerable to such risks.
One of the fatalities linked to an ARC inflator incident involved Marlene Beaudoin, a 40-year-old mother of 10 from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She was injured by metal fragments after a minor accident involving her 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV in 2021.
The finding by NHTSA was welcomed by Steve Polich, a Michigan attorney representing Beaudoin’s family in a lawsuit against ARC, General Motors and air bag assembler Toyoda Gosei. He affirmed that the decision supports their case.