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OEMs, supplier join ARC Automotive in NTHSA air bag inflator recall dispute

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Ten automakers and an automotive supplier have voiced opposition against a proposed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recall of 52 million ARC Automotive air bag inflators. ARC Automotive also continues its pushback against the recall.

NHTSA demanded the ARC inflator recall in April following a nearly eight-year investigation. The request includes 41 million frontal hybrid, toroidal driver, and passenger inflators manufactured by ARC from 2000 through the implementation of the borescope examination process in January 2018 and 11 million driver hybrid, toroidal inflators manufactured by Delphi under its licensing agreement with ARC.

OEMs and suppliers disputing NHTSA’s recall, which was part of the agency’s initial decision and requires a final order, are General Motors, Fiat Crysler Automobiles (FCA), Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, Porsche, Ford, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Autoliv.

GM has recalled more than 1 million ARC air bag inflators and “continues to study and monitor the performance of the remaining ARC inflators in GM vehicles in the field with support from a third-party engineering firm.”

NHTSA’s initial decision “falls far short of the agency’s technical and procedural standards, especially in major defects enforcement cases, and fails to carry the agency’s burden of demonstrating that a massive and unprecedented expansion of the existing ARC inflator recalls —extending to as much as 15% of the over 300 million registered motor vehicles in the United States — is legally required or would advance public safety,” GM’s comments state.

Automakers also contend NHTSA came to its initial decision:

    • Based on an insignificant number of inflator ruptures and air bag deployment failures
    • Predicated on its estimate of three possible ruptures through 2056
    • Despite no definitive root cause
    • Without considering that the recall includes different inflator models with different propellant loads and dimensions made in the span of several years by two different manufacturers, on three continents, in multiple factories, and on multiple lines
    • Without evidence of a safety-related defect in every inflator included in the recall request
    • Without considering adverse public safety, societal, and economic consequences such as new manufacturing and repair risks that no manufacturer would be able to entirely prevent
    • Misplaced comparison and precedent on the Takata air bag recall, which involves a common root cause defect in design and is the result of data-driven analysis and careful evaluation
    • Based on several hundred gigabytes of broad and largely unexplained data and files that the OEMs weren’t given enough time to sort through before the comment deadline

It’s noted in the comments as well that from 2016-2018, NHTSA had ARC, Tier 1 suppliers, and vehicle manufacturers collect, analyze, and ballistically test over 900 ARC inflators that were manufactured from 2000-2006. None of them ruptured nor failed to meet engineering specifications.

GM contends NHTSA has failed to provide very few documents that reflected its analysis of the subject inflator population, “let alone any that accounted for the many different inflator configurations within that population.” This was an allegation that all of the OEMs made to varying degrees in their comments, including a lack of evidence, incomplete data, and/or assumptive statistical analysis from NHTSA to back its initial decision.

GM called NHTSA’s decision “arbitrary, unreasonable, and contrary to law.”

“The Initial Decision invites more questions than it answers,” GM wrote. “The facts contained within it reflect that the agency has little clarity about the design and manufacturing processes affecting the 52 million inflators at issue and a substantial uncertainty about the root causes of the seven field ruptures. A majority of these ruptures have a root cause that cannot be explained by the agency’s weld-slag theory.”

ARC Automotive continues to disagree with NHTSA’s decision, according to its written comments submitted to the agency.

“NHTSA’s Initial Decision boils down to a simple proposition that is unsupported by relevant case law or the investigation record: that the seven field ruptures involving these inflators somehow evidences a systemic defect among the 52 million subject driver and passenger inflators,” ARC wrote. “These inflators, however, were produced over an 18-year time period, involved numerous inflator designs, were installed on dozens of different vehicle makes and models, and were produced in several different manufacturing plants, on different lines within those plants, and with different manufacturing processes.

“The Agency then asks ARC to prove a negative — that the 52 million inflators in this population are not defective. In fact, more than half of the vehicle manufacturers identified in the Initial Decision — BMW, Ford, Hyundai, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Toyota, and Tesla — have had no ruptures in the U.S. or (other than Hyundai) globally.”

ARC argues as well that NHTSA ignored differences in what could be the root causes of the ruptures. “[T]he Agency’s record is devoid of any evidence, let alone credible evidence, that a systemic defect exists in the full inflator population or, more aptly, the population that is not already subject to a recall.”

Hyundai wrote in its comments that it plans to create a program to monitor, inspect, analyze, and evaluate inflators recovered from the field to identify whether and to what extent a design defect or a common systematic manufacturing defect exists.

“HMA [Hyundai Motor America] will share its work with NHTSA and will seek information obtained through NHTSA’s more extensive use of its investigatory powers over ARC, which HMA suggests be used to obtain critical technical information that has not yet been obtained,” Hyundai wrote.

Ford noted that ARC’s 2018 tests of 1,000 inflators, supervised by NHTSA, resulted in 99% reliability and 99% confidence that the inflators in the subject population would deploy without rupturing. The OEM wrote that NHTSA has “no basis to conclude that any ARC inflators present in Ford vehicles are defective.”

BMW said it doesn’t agree with NHTSA’s initial decision because it isn’t aware of any ruptures within the recalled vehicle population that involve BMW, MINI, or Rolls-Royce cars.

“[W]e do not believe it is fair to conclude that such events will occur in BMW Group vehicles in the future and, therefore, that a field action regarding those vehicles is required… we suggest deeper analysis on potential differences in rupture incidence in inflators from different ARC production plants, lines, and periods,” BMW wrote.

The OEM noted as well that just because any or all of ARC’s hybrid toroidal inflators may use a similar design doesn’t mean they have the same propensity to rupture.

Porsche had similar remarks in writing that it disagrees with NHTSA’s rupture incident rate and fatal rupture incident rate calculations. There also has been no evidence of an ARC inflator rupture in any Porsche vehicles.

Toyota also said it hasn’t found an inflator rupture safety defect exists in the recall population involving its Toyota vehicles, and that NHTSA has insufficient information to identify one.

Kia wrote that while there has been an ARC inflator rupture in one of its vehicles in the U.S., it wasn’t the same type as those that have been recalled and is the only one in which a module manufactured by Delphi was involved.

Automotive supplier, Autoliv, wrote that none of the air bag inflators it manufactured or acquired from ARC are defective.

“NHTSA has not demonstrated sufficient commonalities among the subject inflators to permit the conclusion that they are defective,” Autoliv wrote. “…the limited number of field incidents precludes the finding of a defect for any of the subject inflators. The alleged likelihood of future failures is more remote than any court has found to be defective by almost two orders of magnitude.

“Given the extraordinarily low failure rate, simple statistics make clear that there are likely to be more air bag incidents if each of the 52 million airbags must be replaced.”

Volkswagen defended the effectiveness of ARC’s air bag inflators but also pointed out that they are only used on the passenger side of its VW and Audi vehicles, and that none of those included in the recall have ruptured.

“The vehicles and air bags utilizing the ARC inflators at issue underwent extensive design and manufacturing safety assessments and, according to any reasonable definition, have not only operated safely to protect vehicle occupants, but have also saved lives and prevented many serious injuries during vehicle accidents,” Volkswagen wrote. “Use of NHTSA’s own statistical methodology put forward during the public meeting held on October 5, 2023 predicts zero future ARC inflator ruptures in VW and Audi vehicles.

“…NHTSA should re-assess its Initial Decision and, based on the engineering data, field experience, risk data, and legal standards applicable here, should correct its position and close this investigation, especially as to, but not limited to, its assessment of ARC passenger-side inflators designed for VWGoA [Volkswagen Group of America], as to which zero future incidents are predicted. That is not only the best course for public safety, but also what the facts and the law require.”

FCA wrote that NHTSA’s conclusion is oversimplified and inaccurate.

“FCA US replicated NHTSA’s analysis and determined that its population will likely see less than one additional rupture over the next three decades… The Initial Decision does not support an Order to recall tens of millions of vehicles with ARC inflators.”

Mercedes commented similarly that, “Even if NHTSA had shown that a reasonable, reliable, and supported estimate of the number of deployments of air bags using the subject inflators is an appropriate denominator for determining the risk of rupture, it has not adequately explained how it derived that estimate or shown that it is reasonable or reliable… As it stands, the [NHTSA initial] decision is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and not supported by substantial evidence in the record.”

NHTSA hasn’t said when, or if, it will issue a final order. 

Earlier this week, NHTSA Acting Administrator Ann Carlson announced internally that she will step down from her role on Dec. 26, and leave the agency at the end of January. Automotive News reports she told employees in an email she would leave her current role because of a law that limits how long officials can remain on as temporary.

Carlson will reportedly serve in her former chief counsel role until the end of January.


Featured image: Stock image of deployed air bags. (Credit: miljko/iStock)

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