The push by U.S. auto safety regulators to replace potentially dangerous Takata air bag inflators in millions of vehicles is running into resistance from General Motors Co, documents released on Thursday show.
GM’s response highlights the challenges that the Takata airbag scandal, which has led to the largest-ever auto safety recall, presents to automakers and regulators.
The largest U.S. automaker issued a “preliminary recall” for 1.9 million 2007-2011 trucks and sport utility vehicles equipped with Takata Corp passenger-side airbag inflators that use ammonium nitrate as a propellant.
Its action was the latest in a series of recalls announced by major automakers since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) declared that all Takata airbag inflators made with ammonium nitrate should be replaced.
But GM told U.S. regulators it may not be necessary to recall many of the Takata-equipped 2007-2011 full-size trucks and SUVs, according to documents filed with the NHTSA. GM said its Takata inflators have a unique design that does not pose a safety risk.
The company said its data shows no cases of an airbag rupturing among 44,000 deployments in large pickups and SUVs that contain Takata inflators.
The Takata inflators used in GM trucks and large SUVs are designed with different venting for hot gases released when the airbag deploys, and they are installed in the vehicle in a way that minimizes exposure to moisture, the company said.
“GM believes that the vehicles it manufactured with these inflators do not contain a present defect which poses an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety,” the automaker stated in a document filed with the NHTSA.
GM said it plans additional testing to make the case that its vehicles are safe.
Takata and other airbag suppliers lack the production capacity to quickly produce replacement parts, officials have said.
Michigan-based air bag maker Key Safety Systems and new Chinese parent Ningbo Joyson Electronic Corp are discussing a potential investment in Takata with the Japanese company’s investment banker Lazard, Key Chief Executive Jason Luo said on Thursday.
Luo said he could not provide further details on whether Joyson and Key were interested in acquiring Takata or its air bag and seat belt operations.
AT ODDS WITH REGULATORS
GM’s stance is at odds with the position regulators took last month when they said all frontal Takata airbag inflators without a drying agent must be recalled.
“The science clearly shows that these inflators become unsafe over time, faster when exposed to humidity and variations of temperature,” NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas said Thursday.
Upward of 100 million vehicles worldwide with Takata airbag inflators have been recalled and are linked to 13 deaths and more than 100 injuries. Inflators can explode with too much force and spray metal shrapnel into vehicle passenger compartments.
NHTSA confirmed in April that about 85 million Takata airbag inflators eventually will have to be recalled and replaced unless automakers can prove they are safe. Federal officials have agreed to give Takata and automakers until December 2019 to either recall ammonium nitrate inflators, or prove they are safe.
NHTSA is staggering recalls over time and directing replacement inflators first to states with extended high heat and humidity, linked to inflator failures.
However, NHTSA’s handling of the situation has come under fire from Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, a U.S. Senate report said four automakers were continuing to sell some new vehicles with defective Takata airbag inflators that will eventually need to be recalled.
Ruptures have occurred without warning. In December, a driver of a 2006 Ford Ranger was killed in South Carolina when the inflator ruptured in a crash. NHTSA said 1,900 tests of the Ranger inflator type did not result in any ruptures. Ford on Wednesday recalled 1.9 million additional vehicles for Takata inflators.
GM’s large pickups and SUVs are its most profitable and highest-volume models. GM declined to say how many trucks it has sold in the U.S. with ammonium nitrate Takata inflators that could be subject to recall. Data provided by LMC Automotive indicate GM built 4.9 million large pickups and large SUVs in the years 2007-2011. About 300,000 of those vehicles, heavy duty pickups, already were recalled.
GM’s action Thursday was the largest of six separate recalls made public by the NHTSA. Volkswagen AG recalled 217,000 vehicles; Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz USA unit recalled 200,000 vehicles, and the German automaker’s U.S. van unit recalled 5,100 vehicles. Another 92,000 vehicles were recalled by BMW AG, while Jaguar Land Rover, a Tata Motors Ltd brand, recalled 54,000 vehicles.
In total, 15 automakers have recalled nearly 16.4 million vehicles in the United States since last week, stemming from Takata’s decision in May to declare another 35 million to 40 million inflators with ammonium nitrate defective by 2019.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Adrian Croft, Nick Zieminski and Bill Rigby)
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