Here’s a real-world morality question: Should automakers be required to spend billions of dollars to potentially protect only 140 persons from death and injury? As far as some unsung heroes at the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration are concerned, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
The NHTSA appears poised to take on the legal might of a dozen automakers and force them to recall 52 million airbag inflators because the automotive safety agency says the parts are potentially unsafe and susceptible to ruptures that can maim and kill vehicle occupants. The recall would be the second biggest in automotive history, trailing only the 67 million Takata airbags the NHTSA ordered recalled beginning in 2013 that cost automakers nearly $25 billion and forced Japan-based Takata into bankruptcy.
The Takata airbags had a manufacturing inflator flaw that could cause them to explode. As of February of this year, 24 persons were killed because of the defect and more than 400 were injured.
The airbags the NHTSA wants recalled were mostly manufactured by a Tennessee-based company called ARC Automotive, which in turn is owned by a communist China-based conglomerate. Delphi Automotive Systems, which was spun off from General Motors in the mid-1990s, also manufactured the airbags using a design it licensed from ARC.
NHTSA in 2018 asked ARC to voluntarily recall its airbags. The company refused, insisting they were safe, and that the agency didn’t have the authority to order a supplier to recall its products.
The automakers who installed their vehicles with ARC airbags understandably are resisting the massive recall, much like many challenged the Takata recall mandated by the NHTSA. GM three years ago agreed to recall and repair nearly six million pickup trucks and SUVs equipped with Takata air bags after petitioning the NHTSA four times to avoid a recall, contending the air bags were safe on the road and in testing. Owners protested GM’s opposition and accused the company of putting profits over safety.
The Takata recall cost GM more than $1 billion. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that GM has the biggest financial exposure to an ARC recall, having installed 20 million vehicles with the potentially dangerous airbags. It’s known that a Michigan woman driving a GM-made Chevy Traverse SUV was killed by an exploding ARC airbag and that three other injuries resulting from the airbag rupturing involved passengers traveling in a Traverse.
All told, there have been two deaths and seven injuries attributed to allegedly faulty ARC inflators.
GM in May recalled nearly one million Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, and GMC Acadia vehicles from 2014 and 2017 model years installed with ARC airbags after a rupture in March caused facial injuries to a driver. However, GM insisted NHTSA failed to demonstrate the need for “a massive and unprecedented expansion of the existing ARC inflator recalls.”
According to Car and Driver, BMW began a recall for the ARC’s inflator safety defect in 2017, while Volkswagen initiated a recall in 2022.
One would be mistaken believing that car and truck manufacturers wouldn’t knowingly sell vehicles they knew to be unsafe. The NHTSA was created by Congress in 1970 in wake of Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at any Speed,” which revealed that auto manufacturers, particularly GM, knowingly manufactured defective vehicles. GM wasn’t chastened by the bad publicity.
In 2014, it was revealed that GM knowingly sold Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions with faulty ignition switches that could inadvertently shut off car engines and airbags, a problem linked to at least 97 deaths and forced the recall of 2.6 million vehicles. GM CEO Mary Barra, who assumed the top job when the ignition scandal broke, vowed the automaker wouldn’t again ignore safety issues.
It’s been revealed that GM’s semi-autonomous Cruise taxi business ignored safety concerns of not only regulators, but also internal warnings of employees, who were worried about issues such as the difficulty of Cruise vehicles to recognize children. GM halted Cruise’s operations after California’s DMV yanked the company’s license, citing safety concerns and allegations that Cruise officials misled regulators.
Barra is chair of GM and Cruise, giving her absolute power and control over both companies. Bloomberg reported that Barra in 2021 fired a highly regarded Cruise CEO and former GM president because he favored a more cautious rollout of Cruise’s driverless taxi business and wanted to run it independently of GM.
It’s estimated that as many as 900 people died of burns because the Ford Pinto subcompact they were driving burst into flames when their gas tanks ruptured in a collision. Internal company documents revealed at trial that Ford secretly crash-tested the Pinto more than forty times before it went on the market and that the Pinto’s fuel tank ruptured in every test performed at speeds over twenty-five miles per hour.
A Ford engineer testified at trial why no one warned then CEO Lee Iacocca the Pinto was unsafe.
“That person would have been fired,” the engineer said, noting that Iacocca was fond of saying, “Safety doesn’t sell.”
Ford doesn’t appear to have been chastened, either.
An Atlanta jury last year awarded the children of a Georgia farming couple whose parents were killed in a rollover crash a $1.7 billion punitive judgment after being presented with evidence that Ford knowingly sold its Super Duty pickup trucks with flimsy roofs that failed the company’s own internal testing. Ford engineers allegedly developed a stronger roof for the Super Duty pickups in 2004 but the improved version wasn’t adopted until the 2017 model year.
Ford has appealed the verdict, insisting the jurors were mistaken in their decision.
The potential harm of ARC airbags exploding and causing injury or death appears considerably smaller than the Takata airbags. The NHTSA estimates, based on 2.6 million reported deployments of ARC inflators, that the risk of ruptures during future crashes would be 1 in 370,000. Put another way, the agency believes that statistically if all the 52 million airbags it wants recalled were to deploy, there would likely be only 140 ruptures causing injury or death. To put those odds in perspective, an American is statistically way more likely to get hit by lightning, where the chances of getting struck are 1 in 15,300.
The NHTSA maintains that air bags were intended to save lives, so a design flaw that could potentially kill even one person is unacceptable. ARC and the dozen or so automakers who installed the company’s airbags insist the product overall is safe, although ARC concedes that more inflator eruptions are possible, essentially arguing “shit happens.”
“Even with appropriate industry standards and efforts by manufacturers to minimize the risks of failures, the manufacturing processes may not completely eliminate the risk of occasional or isolated failures,” ARC wrote in a response to the NHTSA.
As explained by the New York Times, inflaters use an explosive substance such as ammonium nitrate that is compacted into tablets stored in a metal cylinder. In a crash severe enough to set off a vehicle’s airbags, the tablets are supposed to create a controlled explosion that rapidly fills the airbags with gas.
NHTSA said it had found that ARC’s manufacturing process could leave bits of welding material, known as weld slag, inside the cylinder. If the airbags are deployed, that material could clog the exit opening and cause an explosion violent enough to blast shards of metal and plastic into the vehicle’s interior.
One victim of the rupture NHTSA fears was Marlene Beaudoin, a 40-year-old mother of 10 from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who the AP reported was struck by metal fragments when her 2015 Chevrolet Traverse SUV was involved in a minor crash in 2021. She and four of her sons had been on their way to get ice cream. Beaudoin died but her sons were unscathed.
Jacob Travis was one of those sons. He refuses to have his mother dismissed as an unfortunate statistic. Travis appeared at a recent hearing NHTSA was required to call as a prelude to ordering a full recall of the ARC airbags.
Here’s an edited portion of his testimony, based on reporting by Repairer Driven News.
“My mom suffered the greatest but I’m also here as the voice of so many others who have suffered because of these defective air bags. Her airbag exploded like a dirty bomb projecting shrapnel into my mom’s neck and causing other lacerations and contusions to her face and shoulders. The explosion was so forceful it blew the steering wheel off, destroyed the steering column, and sent a fragmented, ragged piece of metal approximately two centimeters in diameter into the back of her neck. Myself and all seven of my siblings at the scene witnessed our mother going in and out of consciousness as she bled profusely.
“My mother, a single mother, was a wonderfully smart, kind organized loving mother. She was a daughter, a sister, a grandma, and a friend to many. She brought joy to all who knew her. Strong family ties and friendships were important to her. She was a great mentor to me and many others. I miss her chats and her guidance very much.”
According to Repairer Driven News, Travis was only 22 years old when he was named the legal guardian of his six younger siblings, who he brought to live with his wife and two young children. An older sibling also moved in.
They don’t live normal lives.
“We also have appointments for grief counseling, major trauma, and PTSD counseling to go to,” Travis told the hearing. “The magnitude of suffering caused by that inflator not being recalled and exploding is exponential. How many others have suffered or will suffer?” Travis asked, imploring the NHTSA to order a recall.
NHTSA began its investigation into ARC’s inflators eight years ago, but the agency must contend with about a dozen deep pocketed automakers that can pursue various legal remedies to oppose a recall. As best I can tell, NHTSA is an underfunded agency, particularly given the proliferation of electric vehicles, which requires a new set of skills and expertise to effectively oversee and regulate.
David Friedman, a former NHTSA acting administrator who later joined Consumer Reports, told the AP’s Tom Krisher that air bag inflators are particularly complex. Friedman said automakers appear to be balking at recalls for cost reasons, which is why the NHTSA needs a “slam dunk case” before ordering recalls.
“That’s one of the things that’s broken in the system,” Friedman said.
NHTSA is possibly the last government agency with the resolve and capabilities to take on powerful corporate interests. The FDA and CDC are overrun with officials with ties to the pharmaceutical industry or have hopes to establish them. Lina Khan, Biden’s thirtysomething appointee overseeing the FTC, has irreparably harmed that agency.
Somewhere in the bowels of the NHTSA’s Washington offices are some government functionaries determined to hold accountable hugely profitable automotive companies and their richly compensated managements. These people know the true meaning of public service.
I wish I knew who they are so I could personally thank them for their heroic efforts and encourage them to keep fighting the good fight. An estimated 140 persons are counting on it.