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Highway bullets: Can auto glass shatter for no apparent reason?

According to hundreds of drivers, yes, it can.

Theresa Childs thinks her car is dangerous.

J.P. Ortiz thinks his is as well.

And after reading this story, you might wonder about your own car. What has these two people and many others so spooked?

Sunroofs.

Wait, what? How is a sunroof dangerous? On their own, a majority of sunroofs are perfectly fine. They sometimes leak a little, sometimes rattle, and sometimes can even get stuck. But for the most part, sunroofs do what they’re supposed to do: open up the sky to the interior cabin while protecting you from the weather and keeping noise at a minimum. Sometimes however, things don’t go according to design.

At 70 mph on a highway, when a sunroof explodes or completely separates from a car, it instantly goes from that super-cool thousand-dollar option to a wall of flying glass.

“This type of thing could have killed somebody, like really could have killed somebody,” says Childs. The sunroof on her and her husband's 2005 Infiniti G35 flew off on I-4 as they were on their way to a concert in Tampa.

“All of a sudden it sounded like somebody opened the door on an airplane it was just eeeccchhhh - and we were just stunned,” she says.

Luckily, as the sunroof fell and shattered on the interstate, debris didn't hit anyone or any other cars. For Childs and her husband, however, that was just the beginning of a surreal ordeal. The couple was stuck for the next four hours under an overpass because of heavy rain and a gaping hole in the top of their car. Childs’ husband even used an umbrella to try andto shield the Infiniti’s electronics from getting soaked by the downpour.

When she finally got home and reached out to corporate relations about the problem, a representative said Infiniti would contribute to half of the bill but Childs and her husband would be responsible for the rest. The total cost for a new sunroof: $1,100.

“And I said, what part of half of this is my responsibility?” Childs told us. “I'm an Infiniti owner who was just simply driving down the road and my sunroof flew off.” Infiniti countered her argument with the fact that the car was 12 years old and seven years out of warranty.

Not Just an Infiniti Problem
Theresa Childs isn’t the only Floridian to have had an issue with a sunroof. Last January, the sunroof on J.P. Ortiz's 2015 Volvo S60 exploded and shattered.

“I started feeling glass falling on my face,” he told our Jacksonville sister station WJXT.

Ortiz, a combat veteran, reached out to Volvo to complain and seek a repair. But unlike Infiniti, Volvo offered no refund, saying that Ortiz’s car was likely hit by a projectile causing the sunroof to shatter, something Ortiz says is flat-out wrong.

Volvo’s response to Ortiz’s complaint is in fact almost identical to dozens of other manufacturer responses we’ve seen. News 6 dug through National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records -- we found hundreds of complaints over the last 10 years about “exploding” or “shattering” sunroofs, or, like in Childs’ case, sunroofs that have just flown off of a vehicle.

The typical first response from a dealership or manufacturer almost always assumes a “projectile” hit the roof, despite owners frequently stating they were nowhere near another car, building, bridge or overpass.

And the complaints run the gamut of vehicles and scenarios: foreign cars and American ones, SUVs, pickups, sedans and coupes, warm climates and cold climates. Failures have happened at highway speeds, on local roads, in stopped vehicles, and to cars that were parked. And the age of your car seems to be just as random: Exploding sunroofs have happened to older cars, newer cars still under warranty, and some were even less than three months off the lot.

The NHTSA is currently in the midst of an investigation for a possible recall of Kia SUVs. When asked for details about the probe, a spokesperson told News 6:

“NHTSA’s investigation is focused on determining whether there is a safety defect in any of these vehicles that presents an unreasonable risk to safety, and we will take action if necessary to protect safety.”

That action can be up to and including a recall if necessary. In the case of the latest investigation, NHTSA is specifically looking at problems with the “spontaneous breakage” of sunroofs on 2011-2014 Sorentos. The probe was officially opened in October 2013 after NHTSA received 95 complaints through owners and dealerships. The number of vehicles possibly affected: 65,347. And although no one has been killed by a detaching or exploding sunroof, NHTSA says at least 18 people have been injured.

While Kia stated, “Field inspections identified only one potential cause for the sunroof breakage - external impacts from rocks or other foreign objects encountered while the vehicle was in motion,” NHTSA describes the problem in simpler and much scarier terms: “The sunroof may spontaneously shatter while the vehicle is in motion or stationary.”

And the Sorento investigation may be the tipping point of a much bigger industry problem: the agency told News 6 it has requested information from four other manufacturers focusing on 12 different vehicle models. In the past five years, three different car manufacturers have issued voluntary recalls to try to stave off further problems. Audi recalled its Q5 in 2012 and A8/S8 in 2013. Volkswagen issued a recall for its Beetle in 2014. Hyundai recalled its Veloster in 2013 and its Sonata last year. Concerns have even reached aftermarket manufacturers: Webasto recalled almost 300,000 aftermarket Hollandia sunroofs out of concern they could spontaneously break.

And though you may have only heard about exploding sunroofs, the sharks are already circling. Class-action lawsuits against Nissan, Kia, Ford, Hyundai and Lexus are either forming or have already been filed.

Problem Versus Solution
Donald Phillips is an engineer and consultant who specializes in accidents involving auto glass. Two years ago, he told sister station KPRC in Houston that carmakers are under pressure from the federal government to make more fuel-efficient vehicles that conform to CAFE standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy). Philips says they’re doing that by using lighter metals for the frame and auto bodies.

“The main issue is that the glass and structure around the sunroof is being made thinner in the vehicle,” says Phillips. “The problem is that going with the thinner materials and the thinner sheet metals in the cars, you’re getting more movement. So now they’re more on the edge of what they used to be when things were heavier and thicker and more robust.”

That’s right: It isn’t necessarily thinner glass that might be the problem, as it instead could be thinner metal frames surrounding the glass that can move, buckle, fail and eventually separate from the vehicle.

Which is exactly what happened to Theresa Childs’ Infiniti G35.

The type of auto glass also makes a difference; sunroofs are made differently than windshields. A vehicle’s side windows, rear window and sunroof are usually made of what’s commonly known as tempered glass.

Tempered glass is designed to break into small pieces, but not shatter or break into sharp pointy “shards” (like a home window or glass door). Windshields are made of laminated glass.

The laminated glass of a windshield is actually two pieces of glass with a thin strip of clear vinyl in between them. When that glass breaks, that vinyl inner lining keeps the outer layers in place. It’s one of the reasons broken windshields stay together as almost a sheet of broken glass rather than a pile of broken pieces.

Aaron Nelson runs a repair shop in Jacksonville. He’s heard of exploding sunroofs but luckily has never experienced one himself.

“I just can't imagine going down the highway and shattering and all the shards of glass just blowing through the car,” he told WJXT. “If you had kids in it, or whatever, it could be a bad thing.”

Nelson says there is one thing owners can try that might guard against injuries. “If you put an aftermarket tint on it, which is actually a film that you apply on the inside, it may make it a little darker of a glass, however if the window did shatter, it would keep those shards of glass from coming down on you.”

Good advice for now for a problem that has yet to solved.

You can report a problem to the NHTSA by following this link.
 


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