ARC Automotive Under NHTSA Investigation for Possibly Faulty Airbags, Refuses to Cooperate

Michael GrossmanNovember 17, 2016 7 minutes

I'm sure by now most people are familiar with the word "Takata." If they don't recognize the name, the controversy that popularized it is even more familiar; the Japanese auto-parts manufacturer is responsible for one of the largest worldwide vehicle recalls of all time. American and Japanese automakers contracted with Takata to provide airbag assemblies over the past thirty-plus years, and it has come to light over the past two or three years that the mixture used to inflate the airbags during crashes is violently unstable. This can cause the metal canister that houses the gas to literally explode, expelling metal shards toward drivers and passengers in vehicles with Takata parts.

Airbag crash test with shrapnel
Pictured: Freeze-frame of a crash test involving projectile metal debris.

Alongside "ignition switch recall" (a General Motors fiasco), "exploding airbag" is one of the terms most synonymous with vehicle failure over the last few years. Takata is more or less the poster child of the phenomenon, but it's important to remember that they are not the only game in town. Their market share is tremendous (though obviously it has taken a mighty hit due to all the recalls), but other companies also manufacture airbag assemblies for vehicles. With the public eye so carefully trained on the auto industry, one would think that every parts manufacturer would be applying incredibly strict quality control measures to their products, to avoid critical backlash if nothing else.

It appears, however, that the sensibility of this assumption is already under challenge from other companies. Recent news shone the light on one in particular.

Government Investigates Non-Cooperation by ARC Automotive

An airbag parts manufacturer based out of Knoxville, TN was recently accused of withholding information and essentially stonewalling an investigation by federal agencies into possibly-unsafe products that contributed to a fatal auto crash.

According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), ARC Automotive Inc. has failed to report test results and crash information, missing several government-mandated deadlines for turning over said information. These allegations can spell out serious trouble for the Tennessee firm if they do not make efforts to comply with the agency's requests, and soon. The NHTSA suggests in published documents that the company's failure to disclose information "raises serious questions regarding the quality and integrity of [its] airbag inflators."

The information request in August was prompted by an auto wreck on July 8 that resulted in the death of a Canadian motorist in Newfoundland. While the actual crash occurred at fairly low speeds, the ARC-made airbag inflator module ruptured during its deployment, sending metal shrapnel into the cabin of the driver's 2009 Hyundai Elantra. Authorities believe the driver would likely have survived the impact alone, but the injuries she sustained from the metal debris proved fatal. While the urgency of the investigation was emphasized by this event, the NHTSA was already examining the company after an Ohio woman was injured under similar conditions in 2015.

The Elantra in the Newfoundland crash allegedly had an ARC inflator made in China, but it's not yet known whether any of the same inflators were used in other American vehicles. ARC has confirmed that the affected Elantra inflator was "substantially the same design" as one used in another U.S. model, the 2004 Kia Optima. The NHTSA has upgraded its investigation to Stage II: Engineering Analysis, which means that depending on its results, a federal recall notice may be issued.

While the ARC inflators should not be confused with the estimated 69 million inflator modules recalled by Takata, the NHTSA suggests that as many as 8 million units may be in distribution from the U.S.-based firm. They believe the units are most likely present in a variety of older-model vehicles made by GM, Hyundai, Fiat Chrysler, and Kia. They have threatened to levy large fines against the company for its seeming reluctance to comply with the investigation. ARC, for its part, appears disinterested in cooperating. A statement from the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation notes the blasé reception it has thus far received:

"Instead of noting the serious nature of these incidents earlier this year and committing to work with NHTSA to determine the appropriate range of issues at hand, ARC's counsel stated that they had no obligation to provide such information and chastised agency staff for indicating otherwise."

While I'm hardly a die-hard fan of government mandates, a request for records and information is hardly some unforgivable encroachment by the nanny state. Someone died, and ARC's product might have been a factor. Ignoring a request for assistance and cooperation seems a trifle unwise. Among the accusations the company faces are failing to provide data reflecting airbag failures during testing, failing to relay a report issued by Toyota about an inflator defect, and flat-out refusal to comply with directives from the agency responsible for its federal oversight. Moreover, it stands accused of not reporting the fatal Canadian accident, which the NHTSA learned of through international safety regulators and a report by Hyundai.

The agency isn't taking the snub particularly well, and has threatened to subject ARC to a public hearing and a daily fine of $21,000 until it delivers the requested material. That fine would be effective in perpetuity, up to a maximum of $105 million (that's 5,000 days of fines, or about 13 and a half years).

Claymore Airbags: A Quick Refresher

Alarming though it seems, a directed explosion is probably the most effective way to quickly deliver directional force--the exact kind needed to inflate an airbag in the fractions of a second between the start of a collision and inertial forces throwing a driver forward. While motorists are doubtless not thrilled about being essentially punched back into their seats, and sometimes suffer bruises or even broken bones, the alternative of significant and often fatal injuries should curb their dissatisfaction. Coupled with the seatbelt assembly (which also involves a small explosion), the vehicle's safety array is generally effective at preventing injury. The central issue to these airbag lawsuits isn't so much the inherent design or purpose of the bags themselves, but in the material used to inflate them.

I've talked a little about this before, but the reagent used to inflate airbags, called propellant by the industry, is in fact an explosive chemical mixture. Takata (and ARC, it appears) have been found to used the volatile compound ammonium nitrate as their primary inflating agent. When a crash happens, a sensor in the vehicle relays a signal to the airbag's control module, which triggers the airbag inflator. The ammonium nitrate compound is ignited, and heated gas is rapidly expelled outward into the airbag, which blows its cover off the steering wheel and comes between the dashboard and a forward-propelled driver. Ammonium nitrate, however, is an inherently unstable compound, and that instability is made worse by age and exposure to moisture; in humid climates, that considerably increases the risks of malfunction. For today's purposes, "malfunction" means a poorly-controlled explosion and the expulsion of high-speed metal fragments from the propellant canister--not unlike a Claymore mine, an anti-personnel explosive used by the military. To place it further into context, let me repeat a fact I also refer to in another article: a large quantity of this mixture was a key component involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, which claimed 168 lives.

Drivers and passengers are being injured, even killed, by the propellant's unpredictable reactions to its environment, and yet the manufacturers making use of it are refusing to comply how- and whenever possible. Takata mystifyingly continues to insist that its product is safe despite empirical examples to the contrary. ARC's unwillingness to provide documentation related to its own products only spurs the investigation to greater intensity, since that refusal implies there may be something to hide.

The automotive industry is looking into alternatives to the ammonium nitrate compound; even Takata has begun to incorporate guanidine nitrate, a significantly less volatile mixture, as a replacement in its new airbag assemblies. Its rival companies, TRW and Autoliv, already make use of the mixture to help ensure the safety of their products. It is unclear if ARC Automotive will follow suit, given that it so far has not even disclosed information that would confirm or deny culpability.

Can I Sue if I'm Injured by An ARC Airbag?

In personal injury lawsuits, one of the key elements most often addressed is the idea that the defendant (the one who caused the injury) was negligent. One interpretation of such an allegation would be that the company knew there was a better way to manufacture its product--a way that would reduce or eliminate the possibility of injuries sustained during normal use. In this instance, that would be backed up by the availability and incorporation of guanidine nitrate as a safer alternative propellant. Its use and availability were known to the companies (their competitors already made use of the formula), but they elected instead to cut fiscal corners and place consumers at risk to wring out more profit.

I keep referring back to Takata when talking about ARC because the former is essentially a template for negligent practice, from which other airbag manufacturers should be taking notes about what not to do. Continuing to use cheap, plentiful, dangerous ammonium nitrate in one's products given the numerous known examples of its risks creates a logical argument of negligence. Any company that continues to do the same thing with the widespread information about Takata's current legal woes is asking for the same kind of trouble. I understand that greater supply and operating costs are anathema to ideal business, but here's the thing: So are widely-publicized injury and wrongful death lawsuits.

Claims of negligence are often challenged by a defendant who suggests that the product that malfunctioned was being improperly used. Airbags have a particular distinction, in that there is virtually no way that a consumer can be suspected of misusing them. It's generally inaccessible outside of the circumstances for which it is intended, and therefore mostly immune to any theories of improper handling. It is either dormant or it is engaged; there aren't many in-betweens.

The continued negligent employment of a volatile and easily-compromised explosive compound in a consumer commodity could easily be considered an act of negligence. Based on this, a plaintiff's attorney could indicate that ARC Auto breached its duty to create a product that would be safe for use by its end-user: a car's driver. In instances of shrapnel ejection, it is likely to prove that serious laceration damages are caused by the metal debris ejected during the canister explosion. In those circumstances, the explosion can be viewed as the proximate cause of those damages--that is, the instance from which the plaintiff's injuries were the direct result.

ARC may not have as global a reach or as deep an infamy as Takata, but 8 million potentially-affected vehicles certainly can't be discounted. Their inexplicable lack of cooperation with federal investigators may very well come back around to bite them. If the NTHSA issues a formal recall, or if consumers step forward en masse to demand answers about why the company saw fit to place a shaped charge in their steering wheels, the Knoxville company may have a lean season ahead.