Image: Chevrolet

Japanese auto safety supplier Takata admitted that certain airbag inflators that it supplied to General Motors for use in GMT900 trucks were defective. But GM continues to petition the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying that the trucks are actually safe and don’t need to be fixed. Unsurprisingly, some folks aren’t happy.

By now we’ve all already heard about the biggest recall in automotive history involving faulty ammonium-nitrate-equipped Takata airbag inflators that can, due to humidity, deploy so violently that they send shrapnel into occupants. But something I didn’t realize until recently was that General Motors has been petitioning the government for more than three years to avoid having to recall certain GMT900 trucks and SUVs built between 2007 and 2014.

In case you’re wondering, GMT900 trucks include the Chevrolet Silverado 1500, GMC Sierra 1500, Chevrolet Silverado 2500/3500, GMC Sierra 2500/3500, Chevrolet Tahoe, Chevrolet Suburban, Chevrolet Avalanche, GMC Yukon, GMC Yukon XL, Cadillac Escalade, Cadillac Escalade ESV, and Cadillac Escalade EXT.

Back in 2016, NHTSA and Takata agreed to “declare a defect” on all front airbag inflators that utilized phase-stabilized ammonium nitrate without a moisture-absorbing agent, and they agreed that the “defect declarations” would happen in waves. The first wave happened in May of 2016, then the next near the end of 2016, then the third near the end of 2017, and the final near the very end of 2018.

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GM has responded to all four of those defect declarations with petitions, with the company’s main point being, per the NHTSA notice document “Petitions for Decisions of Inconsequential Noncompliance: General Motors, LLC,” that its passenger-side airbags don’t need to be recalled since, thanks to integration and inflator differences, they are safe. From the notice:

GM has petitioned the Agency for a decision that, because of differences in inflator design and vehicle integration, the equipment defect determined to exist by Takata is inconsequential as it relates to motor vehicle safety in the GMT900 vehicles, and that GM should therefore be relieved of its notification and remedy obligations.

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GM says its airbags include a number of design features that influence the dynamics of the airbag deployment—features not used by other OEMs. Those include, per the notice, “greater vent-area-to-propellant-mass ratios, steel end caps, and thinner propellant wafers.” In addition, the notice says GM alleges that the physical environment of the trucks protects passenger inflators from temperature cycling that can “lead to propellant degradation and, ultimately, inflator rupture.”

This latest petition talks about how studies with Northrop Grumman have allegedly shown that even “worse-than-worst-case humidity exposure and temperature cycling” won’t yield inflator ruptures, and that ultimately, the “covered passenger inflators” aren’t an “unreasonable risk to safety.” Per the notice document:

According to the Fourth Petition, “[a]fter the filing of the Third Petition, GM and Northrop Grumman continued to investigate and analyze the longer-term performance of the GMT900 Inflators.”  (5) Id. at 3. Specifically, GM states that Northrop Grumman: Aged leftover GMT900 inflators from the original aging study to “extreme field exposure” of an estimated thirty-five years—“produc[ing] more ruptures in the comparison group non-GMT900 Takata inflators but no ruptures in the GMT900 Inflators”—and applied a predictive-rupture model to GMT900 Inflators yielding results consistent with those from the long-term aging study. Id. at 3-4. GM contends it thereby “has established that worse-than-worst case humidity exposure and temperature cycling will not cause inflator ruptures in the GMT900 Vehicles at any point within even unrealistically conservative vehicle-service life estimates”—i.e., that the covered passenger inflators, as integrated into the GMT900 vehicles, do not present an unreasonable risk to safety. See id. at 4.

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So GM says it has field data that includes 66,894 passenger airbag deployments in GMT900 cars without a single reported rupture. On top of that, GM’s data allegedly includes ballistic tests of 4,270 “covered passenger inflators” without a rupture.

NHTSA posted the notice of receipt of this petition on the 18th, and the period of public comment has begun. Unsurprisingly, some folks want GM to just recall the airbags.

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From Kiran Cha:

If Takata, designer, states these air bags are faulty, why would GM not recall? I get it, it would cost more than $1b to do this, but you need to own your product and fix it.

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From an anonymous commenter:

If these air bags are a problem then you need to make GM replace them. I have a safety recall from July 2016 on these and I still can’t have them replaced. This is something that can cause death to my wife or grandkids if they go off and explode the wrong way. Three Years is 3 to many. The time to fix this is now!!!!

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It’s a tough spot to be in if you’re GM. If data shows that the airbags are safe, why replace them? But at the same time, having Takata airbags that have been declared defective in cars isn’t great, either. It’s unfortunate all around.