A Tennessee company is refusing demands from U.S. regulators to recall over 30 million vehicles due to airbag inflators that can explode and shoot shrapnel into drivers. While cases are rare, there has been at least one death in Canada, where approximately 3.5 million vehicles could be affected. Canadian transportation officials however lack the authority to demand a similarly sweeping recall, and expect automakers to take the lead.
U.S. INVESTIGATION FINDS ‘UNREASONABLE RISK OF INJURY AND DEATH’
In May, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) demanded that Knoxville-based ARC Automotive Inc. recall 67 million airbag inflators. Following an eight-year investigation, the NHTSA “tentatively” concluded that the devices are defective and pose a safety risk after at least seven injuries and two fatalities were linked to metal debris from exploding ARC inflators between 2009 and 2023.
Meant to safely inflate airbags, the devices can be found in vehicles from at least a dozen automakers, including 2002 to 2017 models by Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Hyundai, Kia and Chrysler parent Stellantis.
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 during a low-speed collision.
The most recent incident occurred on March 22 this year, when a Michigan driver received facial injuries after an airbag inflator ruptured in their 2017 Chevrolet Traverse.
According to U.S. officials, 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 “over pressurization” for the issue and said airbag inflators “when not defective” are “designed to save lives.”
“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,” a the letter from the NHTSA asserted.
The company has so far refused to act, setting the stage for a potential legal battle.
“We disagree with NHTSA’s new sweeping request when extensive field testing has found no inherent defect,” an ARC Automotive spokesperson told the Associated Press.
WHAT MAKES AND MODELS ARE AFFECTED?
While U.S. authorities have not released a full list of affected vehicles, Transport Canada previously published one that covers at least 90 makes and models, including three SUVs recalled earlier in May by General Motors.
Totalling 42,000 vehicles in Canada and nearly one million in the U.S., General Motors recalled the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Chevrolet Traverse SUVs from 2014 to 2017 due to “risk of injury or death” from ARC airbag inflators.
Transport Canada says there are approximately 3.5 million vehicles in the country with driver-side ARC airbag inflators, which is more than one in 10 registered vehicles. Transport Canada’s extensive list features 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.
An exact number of impacted vehicles in the U.S. has not been released, but it could exceed 33 million, since the 67 million devices U.S. authorities want recalled include both driver- and passenger-side airbag inflators. They were manufactured in Tennessee, Mexico and China before January 2018, when ARC made production changes to better detect potential problems.
WHAT ARE U.S. AND CANADIAN AUTHORITIES DOING?
Aside from the recent General Motors recall, automakers previously only recalled models with ARC airbag inflators from the same production lots as known incidents. Those recalls affected just 6,300 vehicles from BMW, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen in the U.S. —a tiny fraction of what regulators are now calling for.
The 2016 incident in Newfoundland also prompted a Transport Canada investigation, which ended in 2022 and saw the lot-specific recall of over 2,300 Hyundai Elantra vehicles from 2009, the same model as the Newfoundland incident, as well as 780 other vehicles from BMW, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen.
“The department’s investigation into this incident and the potential root cause for the airbag inflator rupture was extensive and thorough,” Transport Canada’s 2022 report said. “The recalled parts were sent back to the supplier for examination and testing, and they all passed quality review.”
Transport Canada relies on automakers to report defects and issue recalls, and lacks the legal power to demand a sweeping recall like its U.S. counterpart.
“Unlike the U.S. 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 notice of safety defect in Canada for substantially similar vehicles and components that are recalled in other countries, including any recalls for ARC airbag inflators.”
According to the spokesperson, the 2016 death in Newfoundland is the only known ARC airbag inflator rupture in Canada.
In an email to CTVNews.ca, an NHTSA spokesperson said they are currently evaluating ARC Automotive’s response, and that next steps could include a public notice and meeting.
“NHTSA has investigated and identified a risk associated with a set of ARC air bag inflators that if left unaddressed would lead to more incidents in the future,” the spokesperson told CTVNews.ca. “While incidents are rare, the incidents that have occurred have been severe, prompting the agency to issue a recall request.”
Transport Canada and the NHTSA say they continue to work together to identify the root cause of the issue.
MANUFACTURER AND AUTOMAKERS RESPOND
Based in Knoxville, Tenn., ARC Automotive appears more in favour of limited recalls like those in Canada. In its reply to the NHTSA‘s letter, an ARC executive argued that automakers have not found a defect common to all 67 million inflators, and that a root cause has not been identified in known ruptures, which they described as “isolated events.”
“ARC strongly disagrees with the Agency’s ‘tentative conclusion’ that a safety defect exists in the 67 million toroidal driver and passenger inflators produced during the 18-year period prior to January 2018,” the reply from ARC stated. “ARC believes they resulted from random ‘one-off’ manufacturing anomalies that were properly addressed by vehicle manufacturers through lot-specific recalls.”
ARC Automotive did not respond to a request for comment. CTVNews.ca also reached out to the automakers mentioned in this story. Only Ford, Hyundai, Kia, General Motors and Stellantis replied. Those automakers said they continue to monitor or investigate the situation.
General Motors added it recently recalled certain 2014 to 2017 SUV models because “the front-driver airbag inflator may contain a supplier manufacturing defect that may result in inflator rupture during 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.ca. “GM is taking this expanded field action out of an abundance of caution and with the safety of our customers as our highest priority.”
Hyundai, which was implicated in the fatal 2016 incident in Newfoundland, said it is working closely with both Transport Canada and the NHTSA.
“Hyundai Canada has conducted two parts return recalls of ARC airbag inflators to protect customer safety and further investigate this part following a previous incident,” a spokesperson told CTVNews.ca, referring to earlier Canadian recalls of just over 2,300 vehicles. “At Hyundai, our goal is to place customers’ safety first and we will not hesitate to conduct further recalls if needed.”
Michael Brooks, executive director of the U.S.-based non-profit 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 as many as 40 million vehicles and more than a dozen deaths. It took years before consumers learned if their vehicles were impacted, and automakers like BMW and Honda are still issuing “do not drive” warnings about the issue, which led to Takata filing for bankruptcy in 2017.
Brooks says drivers should insist that dealers disclose if their vehicles have ARC airbag inflators.
“Customers, I think, have a right to know if there’s a potential defect in their car, particularly if it’s sitting a few inches from their chest and can explode,” Brooks told the Associated Press. “The more customers who complain, the more pressure that puts on the manufacturers.”
With files from the Associated Press