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US company refuses to recall millions of airbag inflators; one death in Canada

A Tennessee company is denying requests from U.S. regulators to recall more than 30 million vehicles over airbag inflators that can explode and hurl shrapnel at drivers. Although cases are rare, there has been at least one death in Canada, where an estimated 3.5 million vehicles may be affected. Canadian transportation officials do not have the power to demand such a drastic recall, however, and expect automakers to take the lead.


In May, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) demanded that Knoxville-based ARC Automotive Inc. recall 67 million airbag inflators. After an eight-year investigation, NHTSA has “tentatively” concluded the devices are faulty and pose a safety risk after at least seven injuries and two deaths related to metal debris from exploding ARC inflators between 2009 and 2023.

Intended to safely inflate airbags, the devices can be found in vehicles from at least a dozen automakers, including 2002 through 2017 models from Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW , Porsche, Hyundai, Kia and Chrysler parent Stellantide.

The first known fatality occurred in Canada in July 2016, when the driver of a 2009 Hyundai Elantra in Newfoundland was killed by shrapnel from an airbag inflator that exploded in a low-speed crash.

The most recent incident occurred on March 22 this year, when a Michigan driver suffered facial injuries after an airbag inflator ruptured in his 2017 Chevrolet Traverse.

U.S. officials say other incidents have involved models like the 2002 Chrysler Town and Country, 2004 Kia ​​Optima, 2010 Chevrolet Malibu, 2015 Chevrolet Traverse, 2015 Volkswagen Golf and 2016 Audi A3.

In a May letter to ARC Automotive, U.S. regulators blamed “overpressurization” for the problem and said airbag inflators “when not faulty” are “designed to save lives.”

“Airbag inflators that propel metal fragments into vehicle occupants, rather than properly inflating the attached airbag, create an unreasonable risk of death and injury,” the NHTSA letter asserted.

The company has so far declined to act, setting the stage for a potential legal battle.

“We disagree with NHTSA’s sweeping new request as extensive field testing has found no inherent flaws,” a spokesperson for ARC Automotive told The Associated Press.


While U.S. officials haven’t released a full list of affected vehicles, Transport Canada has already released one that covers at least 90 makes and models, including three SUVs recalled earlier in May by General Motors.

Totaling 42,000 vehicles in Canada and nearly one million in the United States, General Motors recalled Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Chevrolet Traverse SUVs from 2014 to 2017 due to “risk of injury or death” caused by inflators ARC airbag.

According to Transport Canada, approximately 3.5 million vehicles in the country are equipped with ARC driver-side airbag inflators, or more than one in 10 registered vehicles. Transport Canada’s long list includes popular Canadian models from 1998 and 2017 from major brands like BMW, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Fiat, Ford, Mercury, Lincoln, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Hummer, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, Hyundai and Kia. The full list can be downloaded here.

The exact number of affected vehicles in the United States has not been released, but it could exceed 33 million, since the 67 million devices that US authorities want to recall include driver-side and passenger-side airbag inflators. They were manufactured in Tennessee, Mexico, and China prior to January 2018, when ARC made production changes to better detect potential issues.


Aside from General Motors’ recent recall, automakers previously only recalled models equipped with ARC airbag inflators from the same production batches as the known incidents. Those recalls affected just 6,300 vehicles from BMW, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen in the United States, a tiny fraction of what regulators are now asking for.

The 2016 incident in Newfoundland also triggered a Transport Canada investigation, which ended in 2022 and saw the batch-specific recall of more than 2,300 2009 Hyundai Elantra vehicles, the same model as the Newfoundland incident, along with 780 other vehicles from BMW, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen.

“The department’s investigation into this incident and the potential root cause of the airbag inflator rupture was thorough and thorough,” the 2022 Transport Canada report said. “The recalled parts were returned to the supplier for review and testing, and all passed quality review.”

Transport Canada relies on automakers to report defects and issue recalls, and does not have the legal authority to require a general recall like its US counterpart.

“Unlike the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Transport Canada has no direct authority over component suppliers like ARC Automotive Inc.,” a Transport Canada spokesperson told CTVNews.ca. “However, the department expects companies to issue a safety defect notice in Canada for substantially similar vehicles and components that are recalled in other countries, including any ARC airbag inflator recalls. “

According to the spokesperson, the 2016 death in Newfoundland is the only known rupture of an ARC airbag inflator in Canada.

In an email to CTVNews.ca, an NHTSA spokesperson said they are currently evaluating ARC Automotive’s response and next steps may include a public notice and a meeting.

“NHTSA has investigated and identified a risk associated with an ARC airbag inflator assembly that, if left unaddressed, will result in more incidents in the future,” the spokesperson told CTVNews. That. “While the incidents are rare, the incidents that have occurred have been serious, prompting the agency to issue a recall request.”

Transport Canada and NHTSA say they are continuing to work together to identify the root cause of the problem.


Based in Knoxville, Tenn., ARC Automotive seems more in favor of limited recalls like those in Canada. In his response to the NHTSA letter, an ARC executive argued that the automakers had not found a common fault in the 67 million inflators and that a root cause had not been identified in the known breakups, which they described as “isolated events”.

“ARC strongly disagrees with the Agency’s ‘preliminary finding’ that a safety defect exists in the 67 million driver and passenger toroidal inflators produced in the 18-year period to January 2018,” the agency said. CRA response. “ARC believes they resulted from random ‘one-time’ manufacturing anomalies that were properly addressed by automakers through batch-specific recalls.”

ARC Automotive did not respond to a request for comment. CTVNews.ca has also contacted the automakers mentioned in this story. Only Ford, Hyundai, Kia, General Motors and Stellantis responded. Those automakers said they were continuing to monitor or investigate the situation.

General Motors added that it recently recalled certain 2014-2017 SUV models because “the front driver’s airbag inflator may contain a vendor manufacturing defect that may cause the inflator to rupture upon deployment.”

“GM continues to investigate this issue with the assistance of a third-party engineering firm with nationally respected engineering expertise in airbag inflator performance,” a spokesperson told CTVNews. .That. “GM is taking this expanded action on the ground out of an abundance of caution and with the safety of our customers as our highest priority.”

Hyundai, which was involved in the fatal 2016 incident in Newfoundland, said it was working closely with Transport Canada and NHTSA.

“Hyundai Canada has initiated return recalls of two pieces of ARC airbag inflators to protect customer safety and to further investigate this part following a previous incident,” a spokesperson told CTVNews. ca, referring to previous Canadian recalls of just over 2,300 vehicles. “At Hyundai, our goal is to put customer safety first and we will not hesitate to issue further recalls if necessary.”

Michael Brooks, executive director of the US-based nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, told The Associated Press that the ARC issue is less dangerous than the one behind the Takata airbag recalls, which began in 2001 and involved up to 40 million vehicles. and more than a dozen dead. It took years before consumers knew if their vehicles had been affected, and automakers like BMW and Honda are still issuing ‘do not drive’ warnings about the problem, leading Takata to file for bankruptcy in 2017. .

Brooks says drivers should insist that dealers disclose whether their vehicles are equipped with ARC airbag inflators.

“I think customers have a right to know if there’s a potential defect in their car, especially if it’s within inches of their chest and could explode,” Brooks told The Associated Press. “The more customers who complain, the more pressure it puts on manufacturers.”

With files from The Associated Press

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