While the industry and consumers alike are reeling from the massive Takata airbag recall, another airbag manufacturer has come under heightened scrutiny after one of its products was linked to the death of a Canadian driver last month.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an inquiry into Tennessee-based ARC Automotive last summer based on two reported rupture incidents in the U.S. that caused injury to vehicle occupants.
Now, the NHTSA is upgrading its investigation after learning of a July 8 fatal collision in Newfoundland and Labrador that was determined to have resulted from an ARC airbag rupture.
“It was a low-speed collision and was considered survivable,” a representative for Transport Canada said in emailed comments to Auto Remarketing. Medical examiners determined that the driver’s death resulted from the rupture of the driver airbag, the representative added.
After Transport Canada learned of the two previous rupture incidents in the U.S., the agency invited investigators from the NHTSA to accompany its own investigators on a site visit to Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Based on what it has learned in the preliminary evaluation and initial investigation of the new incident, NHTSA is upgrading its investigation to an engineering analysis, during which it will gather additional information and direct the collection and testing of inflators as part of its effort to determine the root cause of the rupture incidents,” the NHTSA confirmed in emailed comments to Auto Remarketing.
The July 8 fatality involved a 2009 Hyundai Elantra equipped with a single-stage driver airbag inflator manufactured at ARC’s China facility a year prior.
One of the 2015 incidents involved a 2002 Chrysler Town & Country minivan that used a dual-stage airbag inflator. The other involved a 2004 Kia Optima sedan that used a single-stage inflator. Both driver airbag inflators were manufactured at ARC’s Knoxville, Tenn., facility.
During the initial phase of its investigation, the NHTSA identified two additional vehicle manufacturers affected by the faulty ARC inflators: General Motors and Hyundai.
While Takata and ARC airbag inflators both use ammonium nitrate as a propellant, there are design differences between the two components, and excess humidity is not believed to trigger ruptures in the latter.
The NHTSA explained that the ARC inflators are a hybrid design using high-pressure stored gas and a small amount of ammonium nitrate to inflate the air bags.
“The small amount of ammonium nitrate in the ARC inflators is stored within a hermetically sealed chamber of inert gas, and the moisture penetration that is a key component of the root cause of the Takata ruptures is not a factor in this investigation,” the agency said.
Based on the age of the vehicles involved in the two U.S. incidents, the NHTSA has focused its investigation on single- and dual-stage inflators manufactured by ARC from the start of production through September 2004. It is estimated that about 8 million inflators, both single- and dual-stage, were manufactured for use in vehicles produced by Chrysler, GM, Kia and Hyundai for sale or lease in the U.S during that time frame.
The U.S. market model 2009 Hyundai Elantra did not use the single-stage driver airbag inflator produced by ARC in Canada, the NHTSA said. It is not known if any of the inflators made in China were used in vehicles produced for sale or lease in the U.S.
The NHTSA’s probe will now focus on determining the entire population of ARC-manufactured driver airbag inflators, both single- and dual-stage, identification of affected vehicle manufacturers, and whether any single-stage driver airbag inflators made at ARC’s China facility were used in vehicles produced for sale or lease in the U.S.
Additionally, the NHTSA will conduct a program to recover the subject ARC inflators from vehicles in the field for additional testing and analysis.
Representatives from both the NHTSA and Transport Canada did not speculate on whether they foresee a recall. The agencies noted they were cooperating in their investigations.
An email to ARC Automotive was not immediately returned.