Tennessee-based original equipment manufacturer ARC Automotive has rejected a request by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to recall 67 million airbag inflators, which the agency claims pose an unreasonable risk of death or injury.
In a letter to ARC, the NHTSA said it had tentatively concluded that a defect related to vehicle safety exists in the frontal driver and passenger airbag inflators, which were incorporated into airbag modules used in vehicles manufactured for sale or lease in the US by at least 12 vehicle producers.
However, in reply, ARC said it strongly disagrees with the agency’s tentative conclusion.
“Despite a lengthy investigation, the agency’s current position is not based upon any objective technical or engineering conclusion regarding the existence of a defect, but rather conclusory statements regarding hypothesised blockage of the inflator orifice from “weld slag” and a subjective inference that a defect exists based upon the occurrence of seven field [inflator] ruptures in the US.
“The agency then asks ARC to prove a negative – that the 67 million inflators in this population are not defective. Moreover, while weld slag has not been confirmed as the root cause in any of the seven incidents, weld slag was found not to be the root cause in two of these seven ruptures. In any event, the existence of seven (or, more accurately, five) field incidents among the 67 million toroidal driver and passenger inflators produced for the US market during the 18-year period referenced in the [recall request] across multiple manufacturing lines in different plant locations does not support a finding that a systemic and prevalent defect exists across this population.”
Following three inflator ruptures in Chevrolet Traverse vehicles, General Motors in May 2023 began a recall of approximately 994,000 model year 2014 to 2017 Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave vehicles equipped with the MC inflator variant produced by ARC. GM said the front-driver airbag inflator may contain a supplier manufacturing defect that may result in inflator rupture during deployment. “An inflator rupture may cause metal fragments to pass through the airbag and into the vehicle interior, which may result in injury or death to vehicle occupants,” the recall notice said.
However, ARC said no root cause of the Traverse ruptures has been identified.
“We understand that GM’s action is being taken out of an abundance of caution to address potential concerns about the inflators in this population of vehicles while the manufacturers continue their comprehensive analysis of these incidents, including the continuation of a test programme being conducted by an independent third-party.
“ARC continues to work with GM to evaluate the data collected and any next steps. We will continue to be transparent with the agency as the parties’ investigation progresses.”
The NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) opened a preliminary evaluation in 2015 to investigate certain airbag inflators designed by ARC after learning of two driver airbag inflator field ruptures. The following year, NHTSA upgraded the defect investigation to an engineering analysis to further investigate allegations of inflator ruptures involving ARC driver airbag inflators following a field rupture in Canada, resulting in a fatality.
In 2018, the field recovery test programme for frontal driver airbag inflators manufactured by ARC was completed with an agreed-upon protocol at ARC’s facilities in Knoxville. No anomalies were detected in any of the more than 900 deployments and no inflators ruptured.
However in 2022, NHTSA tentatively concluded that a defect related to vehicle safety exists in the subject frontal driver and passenger airbag inflators, demanding that ARC issue a recall addressing the safety defect.
NHTSA said the recall does not constitute a formal conclusion with respect to the evidence in its investigative file. However, if ARC does not conduct the recall, it must provide ODI with a full explanation of its decision, including any additional analysis of the problem beyond ARC’s past presentations.