Potentially defective airbags could explode with too much force.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an investigation into airbags made by ARC Automotive Inc. that could deploy with too much force. The investigation covers about 8 million U.S. vehicles, and was prompted when a driver was killed by an ARC airbag in Canada.

According to NHTSA and Automotive News, a Canadian driver was killed in July by an airbag in a 2009 Hyundai Elantra. That ARC airbag was made in China, but NHTSA says the U.S.-market 2009 Elantra did not use the same airbag.

NHTSA had already been looking into the safety of ARC airbags since July 2015. The agency had received reports of injuries due to “driver airbag inflator rupture” problems in a 2002 Chrysler Town & Country and a 2004 Kia Optima. The ARC airbag inflators use a “hybrid” design that uses an inert gas to inflate the airbag, and an ammonium nitrate propellant to deploy it.

NHTSA says that ARC reported that as many as 8 million cars with the affected ARC airbags were sold or leased in the U.S., in cars from Chrysler, General Motors, Hyundai, and Kia.

Airbags are increasingly under scrutiny after Takata was forced to recall millions of airbags that sometimes inflated with too much power, killing 10 people in the U.S.

Sources: NHTSA, Automotive News

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The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is upgrading its Preliminary Evaluation of ARC Automotive Inc. (ARC) air bag inflators to an Engineering Analysis. ODI opened PE15-027 in July 2015 based on two injury incidents involving a driver air bag inflator rupture. One incident involved a 2002 Chrysler Town & Country that utilized a dual-stage air bag inflator. The other involved a 2004 Kia Optima that utilized a single-stage inflator. Both driver air bag inflators were manufactured by ARC, a tier-two supplier of automotive air bag systems, at their manufacturing facility in Knoxville Tennessee. All ARC driver air bag inflators are a hybrid design that fills the air bag by releasing an inert gas mixture stored in the inflator at high pressure. The gas mixture is augmented by an ammonium nitrate based propellant. The pressurized gas mixture and propellant are contained entirely within a hermetically sealed steel housing isolated from external atmospheric conditions.

During the course of PE15-027, ODI requested information from ARC about which air bag module manufacturers used the subject ARC inflators. Based on the information received from ARC, ODI requested information from the identified air bag module manufacturers about which vehicle manufacturers used modules with the subject ARC inflators. That process identified two additional affected vehicle manufacturers, General Motors and Hyundai. 

Based on the age of the vehicles involved in the two incidents in the U.S., ODI focused on single- and dual-stage inflators manufactured by ARC from the start of production to September 2004. It is estimated that approximately 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 United States during that time frame.

In addition to identifying models using the subject ARC air bag inflator, ODI requested that the affected vehicle manufacturers supply the details for any type of complaint, field report, lawsuit, arbitration or other report involving any vehicle manufactured for sale or lease in the United States equipped with air bag modules utilizing an air bag inflator manufactured by ARC regardless of inflator type (dual vs. single) or position (i.e. driver, passenger, side, etc.). No additional field failures were reported to ODI by the vehicle manufacturers. Additionally, ODI received information from ARC regarding the design, manufacture and testing of the single- and dual-stage driver air bag inflators.

 In July 2016, ODI was informed by Transport Canada of a fatal incident involving a driver air bag rupture in a 2009 Hyundai Elantra. It was determined that incident inflator was manufactured by ARC and had ruptured in substantially the same manner as the two previous incidents known to ODI. The driver air bag module in the subject 2009 Hyundai Elantra utilized a single-stage inflator manufactured at ARC's facility in China. ARC confirmed that the inflator in the 2009 Hyundai Elantra was substantially the same design as the single-stage inflator in the 2004 Kia Optima and was assembled using substantially the same manufacturing process.

The U.S. market model 2009 Hyundai Elantra did not use the single-stage driver air bag inflator produced by ARC in China. It is unknown at this time if any of the inflators manufactured in China were used in vehicles produced for sale or lease in the United States.

ODI's investigation will focus on determining the entire US population of ARC manufactured driver air bag inflators, single- and dual-stage, identification of affected vehicle manufacturers, and whether any single-stage driver air bag inflators manufactured at ARC's facility in China were used in vehicles produced for sale or lease in the United States. Additionally, ODI will conduct a program to recover the subject ARC inflators from vehicles in the field for further testing and evaluation in support of root cause analysis.