US regulators push for recall of 52 million air bag inflators

WASHINGTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) – U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials on Thursday told a public hearing the government should require the recall of 52 million air bag inflators produced by auto suppliers ARC Automotive and Delphi Automotive because they may rupture and send metal fragments flying.

The rarely used NHTSA public hearing could prompt one of the largest recalls in U.S. history. Delphi Automotive, part of Autoliv (ALV.N), manufactured approximately 11 million of the inflators through 2004 under a licensing agreement with ARC, which manufactured the remaining 41 million inflators. An ARC executive argued against a recall during the hearing.

NHTSA enforcement official Cem Hatipoglu told the hearing that while the odds for a rupture may not be high, the consequences are “severe and potentially deadly.” The air bag issue currently is linked to one U.S fatality and seven injuries, the agency said.

“The evidence shows without a recall more people will be injured or killed,” Hatipoglu said.

The agency first demanded a voluntary recall in May, but ARC rejected it. The NHTSA issued an initial decision in September that the inflators should be recalled, the first formal step before it can force a recall.

The inflators in question been used in vehicles from 2000 through early 2018 produced by 12 automakers, including General Motors (GM.N), Ford Motor (F.N), Stellantis (STLAM.MI), Tesla (7203.T), Toyota Motor (7203.T), Hyundai (005380.KS), Kia (000270.KS), Mercedes-Benz (MBGn.DE), BMW (BMWG.DE) and Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE).

A person briefed on the matter confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that GM has at least 20 million vehicles with the suspect parts. GM in May agreed to recall nearly 1 million vehicles with ARC air bag inflators after a rupture in March resulted in facial injuries to a driver.

On Thursday, GM said it “believes the evidence and data presented by NHTSA at this time does not provide a basis” for any new recall.

ARC vice president Stephen Gold opposed a recall, telling the hearing the data and extensive testing suggested the seven incidents linked to the inflators were “isolated” and “not indicative of a systemic defect.”

Gold added that setting such a low threshold for a recall demand – seven incidents out of 52 million vehicles – “is unprecedented in the history of NHTSA… and will have deep consequences for the auto industry.”

NHTSA said the more appropriate context for the seven incidents was not 52 million vehicles but 2.6 million inflators estimated to have deployed to date. Agency officials said the odds of a serious injury were one in 370,000 deployments of the inflators. They said the issue is tied to debris left in inflators during manufacturing that can become loose and cause a deadly rupture.

The hearing was held to consider public input on the agency’s initial determination that the inflators posed an unreasonable safety risk.

Jacob Tarvis, son of Marlene Beaudoin who was killed in 2021 in Michigan was killed in 2021 after an air bag inflator ruptured in a 2015 Chevy Traverse, urged NHTSA to demand a recall.

“The magnitude of suffering caused by that inflator not being recalled is exponential,” Tarvis told the hearing, noting Beaudoin had 10 children and he assumed responsibility for six siblings.

“More moms don’t need to die, more kids don’t have to be raised by their siblings.”

NHTSA official Sharon Yukevich said the data and evidence suggested there will be more ruptures.

“The timing is unpredictable and any one of the 52 million inflators is at risk,” Yukevich told the hearing.

NHTSA will accept public comments until Dec. 4 before issuing a decision.

NHTSA has been scrutinizing air bag inflator ruptures for more than 15 years. Over the past decade, more than 67 million Takata air bag inflators have been recalled in the United States by 19 manufacturers and more than 100 million worldwide, the biggest auto safety callback on record and tied to more than 30 deaths worldwide.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Will Dunham, Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio