DETROIT – A Tennessee company could be headed for a legal battle with U.S. auto safety regulators after denying a request to recall millions of potentially dangerous air bag inflators.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is demanding that ARC Automotive Inc. of Knoxville recall 67 million blowers in the United States because they can explode and throw splinters. At least two people have been killed in the United States and Canada and seven others have been injured as a result of faulty ARC blowers, the agency said.
The recall will cover a large portion of the 284 million vehicles now on American roads, but the percentage is difficult to determine. Some have ARC pump for both driver and front passenger.
In a letter released Friday, the agency told ARC that it has tentatively concluded after an eight-year investigation that the ARC front driver and passenger pump has a safety flaw.
“Airbag inflators that project metal fragments into the vehicle’s occupants, instead of properly inflating the deployed airbag, create an unreasonable risk of death and injury,” Stephen Ridella, director of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, wrote in a letter to ARC.
But ARC responded that no defect exists in the inflators and that any problems are related to isolated manufacturing issues.
The next step in the process is for NHTSA to schedule a public hearing. It could then take the company to court to force a recall.
“We disagree with NHTSA’s new extensive request when extensive field testing has found no inherent defects,” ARC said in a statement Friday night.
Also Friday, NHTSA released documents showing General Motors is recalling nearly 1 million vehicles equipped with ARC blowers. The recall covers certain 2014-2017 Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia SUVs.
The automaker says an explosion of the pump “could cause sharp metal fragments to strike the driver or other passengers, resulting in serious injury or death.”
Owners will be notified by letter starting June 25, but no solution is available yet. They will receive another letter when one is ready.
GM says it will offer “courtesy transportation” on a case-by-case basis to owners who fear driving vehicles that are part of the recall.
The company said it is making the recall, which expands on previous actions, “out of an abundance of caution and with the safety of our customers as our highest priority.”
One of the two deaths was a mother of 10 who was killed in what appeared to be an otherwise minor crash in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the summer of 2021. Police reports show a metal inflator fragment struck her neck in a crash with a 2015 Chevrolet. Travers SUV.
At least a dozen automakers have the allegedly defective air pumps in use, including Volkswagen, Ford, BMW and GM, NHTSA said.
The agency claims that welding residue from the manufacturing process can block an “exit opening” for gas released to inflate the airbag in a crash. Any blockage can cause pressure to build up in the inflator, blowing it apart and throwing metal fragments, Ridella’s letter says.
But in a response to Ridella dated May 11, ARC Vice President of Product Integrity Steve Gold wrote that NHTSA’s position is not based on any objective engineering or technical conclusion of a defect, “but rather conclusory statements regarding hypothesized blockage of the inflator orifice from ‘weld slag.'”
He wrote that weld debris has not been confirmed as the cause of any of the seven inflator ruptures in the US ARC claims that only five ruptured during use, and that “does not support a finding that a systemic and widespread defect exists in this population.”
Gold also writes that manufacturers must do recalls, not equipment manufacturers like ARC. NHTSA’s recall requirements, he wrote, exceed the agency’s legal authority.
In a federal lawsuit filed last year, plaintiffs alleged that ARC’s inflators use ammonium nitrate as a secondary propellant to inflate the airbags. The propellant is pressed into tablets which can expand and develop microscopic holes if exposed to moisture. Degraded tablets have a larger surface area, causing them to burn too quickly and ignite too large explosions, according to the lawsuit.
The explosion can blow apart a metal container containing the chemical, sending metal shards into the cabin. Ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizer and as a cheap explosive, is so dangerous that it can burn too quickly even without moisture present, the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs allege that ARC inflators have blown apart seven times on U.S. roads and two other times in ARC testing. There have so far been five limited recalls of the booster pumps involving about 5,000 vehicles, including three recalls by GM.