DETROIT — The U.S. government is taking a big step toward forcing a defiant Tennessee company to recall 52 million air bag inflators that could explode, hurl shrapnel and injure or kill people.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Tuesday said it has made an initial decision that the inflators made by ARC Automotive Inc., and under license by another company, are defective. The agency scheduled a public hearing for Oct. 5, a required step before seeking a court-ordered recall.
In May the agency asked ARC to recall the inflators, which it says are responsible for at least seven injuries and two deaths in the U.S. and Canada since 2009. But ARC has refused to issue a full-scale recall, setting the stage for the possible court fight.
Messages were left Tuesday seeking comment from ARC. The company maintains that no safety defect exists, that NHTSA’s demand is based on a hypothesis rather than technical conclusions, and that the agency has no authority to order a parts manufacturer 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 has released a full list of vehicle models with the kind of air bag inflators that have exploded. But at least 33 million of the 284 million vehicles on U.S. roads are believed to contain them.
Owners of vehicles made by at least a dozen automakers — Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Ford, Toyota, Stellantis, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Hyundai and Kia — are left to wonder anxiously whether their vehicles contain driver or front passenger inflators made by ARC.
Though ARC is resisting a full-scale recall, automakers have conducted seven smaller recalls of inflators since 2017 that were attributed to isolated manufacturing problems. Those recalls included one that General Motors announced in May involving nearly 1 million vehicles.