The U.S. government is taking the big step of forcing a fixated Tennessee company to recall 52 million air bag inflators that could explode, throw shrapnel and kill people.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday that it had initially determined that an inflator made by ARC Automotive Inc. and licensed by another company was defective. The agency plans to hold a public hearing on Oct. 5, a necessary step before seeking a court-ordered recall.

In May, the agency asked ARC to recall the inflators it said had caused at least seven injuries and two deaths in the U.S. and Canada since 2009. ARC rejected a full recall, setting the stage for a possible court battle.

On Tuesday, we left a message seeking comment from the ARC. The company insists there are no safety flaws, that NHTSA’s request is based on assumptions rather than technical conclusions, and that the agency has no authority to order component makers to announce recalls.

NHTSA is trying to force ARC to recall inflators in driver and passenger front air bags from at least a dozen automakers. Neither ARC nor the auto industry A full list of vehicle models with exploding air bag inflators was released. But at least 25 million of the 284 million vehicles on US roads are believed to have them.

Owners of vehicles made by at least a dozen automakers—Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Hyundai, and Kia—have had to wonder anxiously about their Whether the vehicle is equipped with a manufactured driver or front passenger inflator. Provided by ARC.

While ARC has declined to recall across the board, automakers have issued seven minor inflator recalls since 2017 due to isolated manufacturing issues. The recalls include the one General Motors Co. announced in May and affects nearly 1 million vehicles.

Initially NHTSA said 67 million inflators should be recalled, but the agency revised that figure to 52 million because manufacturers’ responses to the investigation inflated that figure, NHTSA said in documents released Tuesday.

NHTSA believes by-products from welding during the manufacturing process may have blocked the vents inside the inflator, which are designed to allow gas to escape to quickly fill the airbag in the event of a crash. In a defective product, the pressure could build up to such an extent that the jar would explode.

In 2018, ARC completed the installation of an oscilloscope to monitor welding by-products and vents. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in April it had not seen any explosions in inflators made with sights installed.

ARC: ‘Orphaned faults’ cannot be eliminated

ARC, which was bought by Chinese property developer Yinyi Group in 2016, said in a letter to the government that it could not be sure whether its inflators would break again.

“Even with appropriate industry standards and manufacturers’ efforts to minimize the risk of failure, the manufacturing process may not completely eliminate the risk of occasional or isolated failures,” ARC wrote.

The company further argued that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act “does not require that vehicles and equipment never fail in the field. Rather, the Safety Act is designed to protect the public from unreasonable risks.”

During NHTSA’s eight-year investigation into the inflators, airbag makers, automakers and the government have been made aware of any unexplained ruptures on the road, ARC said.

The company has pointed out in the past that no automaker has found a defect common to all inflators, nor has it identified the root cause of an inflator rupture.

Marlene Beaudoin, a 40-year-old mother of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, died after an ARC inflator exploded. In 2021, her 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV was involved in a small accident and she was hit by metal shards. Baudouin and her four sons were on their way to buy ice cream. The sons were not injured.

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