Technical Reviews

US transportation authorities want to recall 67 million airbag inflators

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is calling for a recall of 67 million airbag inflators after a lengthy investigation over allegations that they could rupture and injure drivers and passengers. These inflators were designed by ARC Automotive, Inc. and were manufactured for the US market during the 18-year period before January 2018. They were supplied to six airbag manufacturers, which then incorporated them into the airbag modules used in vehicles by at least 12 automakers. 

In the NHTSA’s letter (PDF) to ARC urging the company to issue a recall, it listed nine incidents wherein a driver (and, in some cases, a passenger) had been injured because an inflator had ruptured. Seven of those incidents happened in the US, and one had resulted in death. There was one other incident outside the US wherein the driver had sustained fatal injuries. The agency wrote in its letter: “Air bag inflators that project metal fragments into vehicle occupants, rather than properly inflating the attached air bag, create an unreasonable risk of death and injury.”

ARC, however, disagrees with the agency’s tentative conclusion that certain inflators manufactured by the company have a safety defect. “After nearly eight years of intensive scrutiny, none of [the manufacturers using its products] has identified a systemic or prevalent defect across this inflator population,” the company wrote in a response letter (PDF) addressed to the NHTSA. It also mentioned a test on 918 inflators taken from vehicles in salvage yards. Apparently, none of them exploded when they were subjected to various testing in the lab. 

ARC said it believes the incidents wherein the inflators had ruptured resulted from “one-off” manufacturing anomalies that had already been properly addressed by automakers though lot-specific recalls. GM, for one, issued a recall (PDF) on May 10th for 1 million vehicles that “may have received a suspect airbag inflator.” The NHTSA warned the company, though, that it will have to write a full explanation with “additional analysis of the problem beyond ARC’s past presentations” it it decides not to issue a recall. Further, it might still decide that ARC’s inflators have a safety defect, and it “may take other appropriate action.”

The NHTSA has been investigating airbag rupture-related incidents over the past 15 years. Over 67 million airbags by the now defunct Japanese manufacturer Takata have already been recalled in the United States, with 100 million more recalled around the world. Like the ARC-made inflators, Takata’s could also explode and unleash metal fragments inside the vehicle. Takata’s airbags were involved in at least 18 deaths and more than 400 injuries, which led to numerous lawsuits, a massive settlement and, ultimately, the company’s closure. 

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