Federal auto safety regulators moved Tuesday toward a recall of about 52 million airbag inflaters used by a dozen major carmakers, calling the parts unsafe and susceptible to rupture.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration scheduled a public meeting on Oct. 5 on its recommendation to recall the airbags, manufactured by ARC Automotive and Delphi Automotive Systems. ARC rejected the agency’s initial findings that its airbags were defective.
The agency said that at least seven people had been injured and one killed in seven incidents in the United States as a result of the defective airbags.
Of the 52 million airbags, 41 million were manufactured by ARC and 11 million were produced by Delphi using a design licensed by ARC. The airbags were variously made in China, Mexico and Knoxville, Tenn., and were used by a dozen major carmakers: BMW, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, Kia, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Stellantis, Tesla, Toyota and Volkswagen.
“An airbag inflater that fails by rupture not only does not perform its job as a safety device, but instead actively threatens injury or death, even in a crash where the vehicle occupants would otherwise have been unharmed,” the agency said in its announcement.
ARC and Delphi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ARC matter comes several years after the safety agency’s investigation of inflaters made by Takata, a Japanese supplier, that were found to explode violently and suddenly, even when the airbags were not deployed in a crash. In that case, regulators determined that Takata used a propellant that could break down over time from exposure to humidity.
The safety agency linked the Takata defect to more than a dozen deaths in the United States. More than 70 million vehicles equipped with Takata inflaters were recalled in more than 40 countries.
In April, the safety agency demanded in a letter to ARC that the company recall tens of millions of airbag inflaters that were made from 2000 to 2018.
The agency’s investigators found that a small number of inflaters designed by ARC could explode more violently than intended when a vehicle’s airbags are deployed, and therefore “pose an unreasonable risk of death or injury,” the letter said.
The letter prompted G.M. to recall nearly one million vehicles made from 2014 to 2017 and equipped with ARC inflaters. The automaker said it was taking the action “out of an abundance of caution.”
In response to the agency’s demand, ARC declined to issue a recall and said in a letter in May that it did not believe a defect existed and that in its view NHTSA’s finding was not based on “any objective technical or engineering conclusion.”
Inflaters use an explosive substance such as ammonium nitrate that is compacted into tablets stored in a metal cylinder. In a crash severe enough to set off a vehicle’s airbags, the tablets are supposed to create a controlled explosion that rapidly fills the airbags with gas.
The safety agency said it had found that ARC’s manufacturing process could leave bits of welding material, known as weld slag, inside the cylinder. If the airbags are deployed, that material could clog the exit opening and cause an explosion violent enough to blast shards of metal and plastic into the vehicle’s interior.
The agency has been looking at ARC inflaters since 2015. The most recent incident involving a rupture occurred in Michigan in March, when the driver of a 2017 Chevrolet Traverse sustained facial injuries.
ARC, in its letter to regulators in May, said that weld slag had been ruled out as the cause of two of the seven incidents noted by the agency, and that it had not yet been found definitively to be the cause of the other five.
A large-scale recall, and any related legal expenses, could have considerable costs for the inflater makers. After the Takata recall, the largest in automotive history, which forced it to pay millions of dollars in fines to U.S. regulators, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and was sold to Joyson Safety Systems, formerly known as Key Safety Systems.
Takata had been responsible for the cost of replacing the defective inflaters — a task handled by local car dealerships — but the bankruptcy filing left automakers to pick up the bill. About 11 percent of the affected airbags still haven’t been replaced, according to the safety agency’s most recent estimate.
The agency has come under scrutiny for its investigations of vehicle defects. In May the Department of Transportation’s inspector general issued a report concluding that the agency’s Office of Defects Investigations did not identify and investigate safety defects in a timely manner.