The US is seeking a forced recall of 52 million airbag inflators that can explode and hurl shrapnel

DETROIT (AP) — The U.S. government is taking a major step to force a defiant Tennessee company to recall 52 million airbag inflators that could explode, hurl shrapnel and injure or kill people.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Tuesday that it had made an initial determination that inflators manufactured by ARC Automotive Inc. and under license from another company were defective. The agency has scheduled a public hearing for Oct. 5, a necessary step before deciding to seek a court-ordered recall.

In May, the agency called ARC to recall gas generators it said have been responsible for at least seven injuries and two deaths in the United States and Canada since 2009. But ARC refused the exhibition a sweeping recall that sets the stage for a possible court battle.

Messages were left Tuesday asking for comment from ARC. The company claims there is no safety defect, that NHTSA’s request is based on hypothesis rather than technical conclusion, and that the agency does not have the authority to order a parts manufacturer to announce recalls.

“These airbag inflators can rupture when the vehicle’s airbag deploys, forcibly propelling debris into the vehicle’s passenger compartment,” NHTSA wrote in a first decision document. “A ruptured airbag inflator poses a disproportionate risk of serious injury or death to vehicle occupants.”

NHTSA wants ARC to recall inflators in driver and passenger front airbags from at least a dozen automakers. Neither ARC nor the auto industry have released one complete list of vehicle models with the kind of airbag inflators that blew up. However, it is estimated that at least 25 million of the 284 million vehicles on US roads will be affected.

Owners of vehicles from at least a dozen car brands — Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Hyundai, and Kia — have to be anxiously wondering if their vehicles have driver or passenger inflators manufactured by ARC.

Although ARC is fighting a large-scale recall, automakers have conducted seven minor inflator recalls since 2017, which have been attributed to isolated manufacturing issues. Those recalls included one that General Motors announced in May almost 1 million vehicles. Ultimately, the automakers are responsible for the recalls.

NHTSA originally said an estimated 67 million inflators were to be recalled, but revised the number to 52 million because manufacturers overcounted in their investigation, the agency said in documents released Tuesday.

NHTSA claims that by-products of welding during manufacturing can clog a vent inside the inflator canister, which is designed to allow gas to escape to quickly inflate the airbags in a crash. In the case of defective products, the pressure can build up so much that the canister bursts.

The inflators that NHTSA wants to recall date from before 2018, when ARC had completed installing telescopic sights to monitor weld byproduct and vents. NHTSA said in April it was not aware of any explosions involving inflation devices manufactured after the scopes were installed.

ARC, which was acquired by Chinese real estate developer Yinyi Group in 2016, has said in letters to the government that it cannot say for sure if its gas generators could rupture again.

“Even with appropriate industry standards and efforts by manufacturers to minimize the risk of failure, manufacturing processes may not completely eliminate the risk of occasional or isolated failures,” ARC wrote.

The company further argued that the federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act “does not require vehicles and equipment never to fail in the field.” Rather, the Security Act aims to protect the public from unreasonable risks.”

ARC said that during NHTSA’s eight-year inflator investigation, airbag manufacturers, automakers and the government were alerted to unexplained problems on the road.

But NHTSA wrote Tuesday that it was aware of seven ARC inflator ruptures in the United States and at least two outside the United States. The rupture did not occur until March 22, the agency said, adding that gas generators had exploded outside of the previously recalled groups.

“An inflator that bursts explosively, throwing metal fragments at high speed into an occupied passenger compartment of a motor vehicle – and into the occupants themselves – cannot simply be dismissed as a normal manufacturing anomaly in which vehicle owners remain uninformed but bear the risk” The hazard to which they and their residents are exposed,” the agency wrote.

One person who died after an ARC gas generator explosion was Marlene Beaudoin, a 40-year-old mother of 10 from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She was struck by shards of metal when her 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV was involved in a minor accident in 2021. Beaudoin and four of her sons were on their way to get ice cream. The sons were not injured.

Steve Polich, a Michigan attorney representing Beaudoin’s family in a lawsuit against ARC, General Motors and airbag maker Toyoda Gosei, welcomed NHTSA’s finding and said in an email that it supports his case.


This story has been corrected to show that at least 25 million vehicles could have the ARC airbag inflators, not 33 million. The US is seeking a forced recall of 52 million airbag inflators that can explode and hurl shrapnel

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