US regulators are urging a recall of 67 million air bag inflators they say could explode in a crash, a major escalation of a safety issue that has plagued the auto industry for years.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified at least nine cases of ruptured air bag inflators that led to injuries, including two deaths, dating from 2009 to as recently as this past March. The parts, made by Knoxville, Tennessee-based ARC Automotive Inc., should be immediately recalled, the agency said in a letter to the company posted online Friday.
The air bags are used by at least a dozen car manufacturers, including General Motors Co., Stellantis NV, Volkswagen AG and [hotlink]Hyundai Motor[/hotlink] Co. GM is recalling almost 1 million vehicles from 2014 to 2017 that are equipped with ARC inflators.
Still, the parts maker said it’s premature to begin a large-scale withdrawal. ARC said in a letter to the agency that it would continue to cooperate with the investigation but doesn’t believe NHTSA can compel it to conduct a safety recall. The spat could end up in court if the parties can’t reach an agreement.
The situation echoes the sprawling recall of more than 100 million defective air bag inflators made by the now-defunct Takata Corp., which was the biggest auto recall in US history. While the ARC problem appears to be unrelated, the prospect of recalling tens of millions of vehicles to get repairs would be a significant burden on the industry and car owners.
NHTSA didn’t specify every automaker or vehicle model that used the ARC parts.
The GM recall involves 994,763 Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia vehicles from model years 2014 through 2017, NHTSA said in a filing. GM shares were little changed in postmarket trading as of 5:38 p.m. in New York.
ARC said it “strongly disagrees” with NHTSA’s assessment that a safety defect exists in the air bag inflators produced over an 18-year period. The company has been cooperating with the agency’s investigation since 2015.
The alleged flaw in ARC’s inflators has key differences compared with the Takata defect, which has been linked to 25 deaths and 400 injuries in the US, according to NHTSA.
Regulators say they have “tentatively concluded” that welding performed in the manufacturing of ARC inflators until January 2018 may have left debris inside the part. During a crash, gas produced by ignition is supposed to fill up the bag. When the channel is clogged, it can cause excess pressure to build up inside the inflator and potentially spray metal fragments, the agency said.
Seven of the nine incidents cited by NHTSA occurred in the US, including the death of a driver in Michigan in 2021. The agency has also reviewed reports of ruptured ARC inflators in Turkey and Canada, the latter of which killed the driver.
Three of the incidents involve model year 2015-2017 Chevy Traverse SUVs.
Meanwhile, with Takata, the propellant used in its defective parts was based on ammonium nitrate, a chemical explosive that is difficult to keep stable. Investigators found that the propellant could degrade after years of exposure to swings in temperature and humidity. In a crash, unstable ammonium nitrate propellant can ignite with too much force and in turn rupture its metal housing, sending shrapnel-like pieces of metal into the vehicle.
Despite an extraordinary campaign by regulators and automakers to replace defective parts with safer ones, almost 8 million Takata inflators remain on US roads. Continued deaths have prompted some automakers to warn drivers to not drive older vehicles until the parts are swapped out.