U.S. al­lows GM to de­lay re­call to prove safety of air bags

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Tom Kr­isher AP Auto Writer

DETROIT >> U.S. auto safety reg­u­la­tors are al­low­ing Gen­eral Mo­tors to de­lay a large re­call of po­ten­tially de­fec­tive air bags, giv­ing the com­pany time to prove that the de­vices are safe and to pos­si­bly avoid a huge fi­nan­cial hit.

The un­usual move by the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion buys time for GM to do longterm tests of Takata air bag in­fla­tors in older trucks and SUVs in­clud­ing its topselling ve­hi­cle, the Chevro­let Sil­ver­ado pickup.

GM reluc­tantly agreed to re­call 2.5 mil­lion ve­hi­cles in May to re­place Takata front-pas­sen­ger in­fla­tors. The com­pany said at the time its in­fla­tors are unique and safer than those linked to 11 deaths in the U.S. and as many as 16 world­wide.

The com­pany pe­ti­tioned for the de­lay last week and the gov­ern­ment agreed Mon­day. The de­ci­sion de­lays the re­call un­til Aug. 31, 2017. If GM can prove that the in­fla­tors are safe by that time, the re­call could be can­celed.

The re­call also cov­ers the GMC Sierra pickup and many pop­u­lar full-size SUVs from the 2007 to 2011 model years. Some of the trucks are older than the min­i­mum six years that it takes for Takata in­fla­tors to de­te­ri­o­rate and be­come risky. But GM con­tends its tests show they are safe for at least 3 ½ more years.

The test­ing could help GM fend off sev­eral re­calls to­tal­ing 6.8 mil­lion trucks and SUVS with the same in­fla­tors that ul­ti­mately could cost the com­pany $870 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a GM fil­ing with se­cu­ri­ties reg­u­la­tors. An­other batch of re­calls is slated to start Dec. 31. The de­lay also pushes the de­ci­sion into the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­den­t­elect Don­ald Trump, who has stated that he wants to get rid of un­nec­es­sary gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion.

GM said the tim­ing of its fil­ings was mo­ti­vated by up­com­ing NHTSA dead­lines. “Any other con­clu­sion is just spec­u­la­tion,” it said in a state­ment.

One auto safety ad­vo­cate called the de­ci­sion a back­room deal and ques­tioned whether it would keep peo­ple safe.

Takata uses am­mo­nium ni­trate to cre­ate a small ex­plo­sion to in­flate air bags in a crash. Tests show the chem­i­cal can de­te­ri­o­rate when ex­posed to pro­longed high tem­per­a­tures and air­borne mois­ture. That can make it burn too fast, blow­ing apart a metal can­is­ter and fling­ing shrap­nel into driv­ers and pas­sen­gers.

NHTSA’s de­ci­sion will de­lay the re­call by about two months. GM has said it will take un­til June of 2017 to de­sign and man­u­fac­ture replacement in­fla­tors. GM will con­tinue en­gi­neer­ing and will be ready if NHTSA de­cides the re­call should hap­pen.

The GM case be­gan when Takata filed pa­pers with the gov­ern­ment declar­ing that 40 mil­lion in­fla­tors in ve­hi­cles from 17 auto man­u­fac­tur­ers were de­fec­tive should be re­called. The ad­di­tion pushed the num­ber of re­called in­fla­tors to about 70 mil­lion, adding to what al­ready was the largest auto re­call in U.S. his­tory. The re­calls would be phased in through De­cem­ber of 2019 as replacement parts be­come avail­able.

In its pe­ti­tion seek­ing the de­lay, GM said 52,000 air bags in its trucks SUVs have in­flated in crashes, and none has rup­tured. The com­pany also said Takata has tested 1,475 GM in­fla­tors and all worked as de­signed.

GM also said its in­fla­tors have big­ger vents that more dan­ger­ous Takata in­fla­tors, and stronger steel end caps. It also says its trucks have so­lar-ab­sorb­ing glass that holds down cabin tem­per­a­tures, keeping the in­fla­tors cooler.

The long-term tests would be done by Or­bital ATK, a Vir­ginia en­gi­neer­ing com­pany that al­ready has de­ter­mined the cause of Takata in­fla­tor rup­tures.

NHTSA said GM will update the agency monthly on test­ing, and if the agency finds any safety prob­lems, it can re­quire the re­call to start.

If GM can get the 2.5 mil­lion-truck re­call can­celed, it likely will seek the same de­ci­sion for 4.3 mil­lion more trucks with the same in­fla­tors that were due to be re­called start­ing next year.

Safety ad­vo­cates and a law­maker ar­gued against a pre­vi­ous GM pe­ti­tion to de­lay the re­calls.

Sean Kane, president of Safety Re­search and Strate­gies Inc., a Mas­sachusetts firm that does test­ing for plain­tiffs’ lawyers and other clients, said the tim­ing of NHTSA’s de­ci­sion shows it was a “back­room deal” that left the pub­lic in the dark.

Kane said NHTSA ap­par­ently didn’t con­sider Takata’s man­u­fac­tur­ing and qual­ity con­trol prob­lems. In past re­calls, au­tomak­ers ex­cluded some ve­hi­cles be­cause they had not ex­pe­ri­enced in­fla­tor rup­tures, yet the ve­hi­cles were even­tu­ally re­called, he said.

Sen. Bill Nel­son, D-Fla., wrote that be­fore a South Carolina man was killed by a Takata in­fla­tor in a Ford Ranger pickup, Ford had tested 1,900 Ranger in­fla­tors and found no sign of ab­nor­mal­i­ties. He called the GM de­lay a mis­take and said other au­tomak­ers could now ask for the same thing “while an un­told num­ber of driv­ers con­tin­ues to be at risk for se­ri­ous in­jury or death.”

Nor­mally, au­tomak­ers front the cost of re­calls and are re­im­bursed by parts mak­ers. But Takata is strug­gling fi­nan­cially, putting re­im­burse­ment in jeop­ardy. Takata has hired a re­struc­tur­ing firm to seek a buyer, and it’s also pos­si­ble that its North Amer­i­can op­er­a­tions will seek bankruptcy pro­tec­tion. That could shel­ter it from some re­call costs, which then would have to be borne by au­tomak­ers such as GM.

GM reluc­tantly agreed to re­call 2.5 mil­lion ve­hi­cles in May to re­place Takata front-pas­sen­ger in­fla­tors. The com­pany said at the time its in­fla­tors are unique and safer than those linked to 11 deaths in the U.S. and as many as 16 world­wide.

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