Volume 15, Issue 1 - January/February 2013

Playing Sherlock:
The Case of Spontaneously Shattering Sunroofs

by Kaitlan Mitchell

Whether on a notepad or iPad, every potential car buyer has somewhat of a standard checklist.

Decent gas mileage, check.

Functioning side airbags and antilock brakes, check.

A radio with such a high-quality stereo system it’s as if Steve Perry from Journey was buckled up and belting out chords in your passenger’s seat, cheee-….er, well sort of.

But while poking and prodding around the inside and outside of the vehicle with a meticulous eye, prospective car owners need to be looking up; yes, up. Recent reports of spontaneously shattering sunroofs in newer models (for one example, see page 10) have caused industry experts to take the role of sleuths, forming a hypothesis of what the true problem is.

For three months, Bob Beranek, editor of AGRR™ magazine’s sister publication Auto Glass Journal® and CEO of Automotive Glass Consultants Inc., has been digging through articles and calling contacts in an attempt to solve the unexplained explosions. With the numerous recent complaints and incidents, Beranek has had a lot to sift through.

“It could be a redesign in the sunroofs or it could be an increase of pressure inside of the vehicle,” says Beranek. “There could be a dozen different things wrong with the sunroofs and that’s why it’s taking so long to research.”

Although it is not one specific brand, a common thread in the shattering sunroof mystery is that the incidents have been occurring in newer models 2010 and up.

Rob Vandal, vice president of product engineering and development at Guardian Automotive notes a recent trend seen among original equipment manufacturers (OEM) of sunroofs as a result of the spontaneous combustions.

“In light of these incidents some OEM’s are beginning to specify laminated glass for their sunroofs,” says Vandal. “Some of the OEMs understand that in addition to reduced breakage, laminated sunroofs would offer superior UV-protection, improved acoustics as well as enhanced security and ejection mitigation benefits.”

One vehicle that came under investigation by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) was the 2012 Hyundai Veloster after the agency received multiple consumer complaints stating the panoramic sunroof shattered without warning. This investigation led to a voluntary recall on certain models of the vehicle. According to the recall, the panoramic sunroof assembly is under inspection for possible “weakening” during factory installation. An estimated 13,500 vehicles manufactured between November 1, 2011 and April 17, 2012 in the U.S. and Puerto Rico will be affected by the recall.

According to one consumer complaint filed to the agency in September, “all of a sudden there was a loud bang like a gunshot and [she] heard something raining down on [her] car. [She] looked in the mirror and saw glass flying everywhere.” An eyewitness to this particular incident reported that “the glass in the sunroof blew straight [upward] like a Coke exploding.”

Another twist to the puzzle is that the vehicle does not have to be in motion for the sunroof to shatter.

On August 28, another 2012 Hyundai owner reported, “The car was in the driveway at night when the sunroof imploded and shattered all over the seats. Nothing fell on the car—it just imploded.”

From all over the spectrum, newer makes and models are affected. Instead of being covered with a blanket, Krystal Miller’s toddler was covered with tiny pieces of glass. In Temecula, Calif., Miller’s 2013 Kia Sorento sunroof spontaneously shattered, launching pieces of glass on her and her one-year-old daughter in late November, according to local reports. Miller took the car back to the dealership and was initially told the repairs weren’t covered in her warranty.

“The dilemma is that vehicle manufacturers believe it’s an impact break,” says Beranek. “Some of the higher-end cars are covering it under warranty if the customer says, ‘I wasn’t even in the car, I wasn’t even driving it.’ Those that say, ‘I was driving down the road and there was no reason for the sunroof to blow out and it just did’ well then the manufacturers are going to say it is impact related. Until injuries occur vehicle manufacturers still have the option to charge the customer for the replacement. If they can pass off the cost to the customers, they’re going to.”

Miller was one of the fortunate ones. DCH Kia of Temecula released the following after a local newspaper reported the incident: “… After the manufacturer conducted the necessary inspections and investigation, and determined that damage to the sunroof is not covered by the warranty on the vehicle, DCH Kia of Temecula is offering to repair or replace the vehicle, at no cost to the customer.”

“To get an impact break on the top of the car is practically impossible,” says Beranek. “The rock would have to bounce straight up and come straight down with such a rate of speed that it would cause tempered glass to break. And that’s very difficult to do. And yet, here dealerships are telling all of these numerous people that it’s an impact break. And it’s hard to prove with tempered glass because once it breaks there’s breakage all over.”

But this still does not explain the mystery as to why sunroofs are spontaneously combusting.

The next step to closing the gap between the problem and solution is taking a closer look at the damage done right after the explosion occurs. If the breakage pattern is pointing to the edge, then it might be a faulty mechanism to blame, according to Beranek. If the breakage comes from a specific spot, then it is most likely from impact. If it implodes without a discernable pattern it could be pressure related. Beranek is seeking pictures from those affected by the shattering sunroofs to better diagnose the situation.

As of now, he has a hypothesis formed. A possible explanation could be attributed to the more frequent manufacturing and importation of glass from foreign countries. Although the sunroof glass meets the necessary criteria, he says it tends to be lighter and thinner.

“I think what some of these dealerships have done is ask their suppliers to reduce the weight of the units they send to them,” says Beranek. “To meet that demand, the suppliers thin the glass out. And what’s happening is that the pressure is popping the glass because the car is so airtight. And I’m not pointing fingers at any particular country. The car manufacturers are seeking cheaper parts. Well, with that comes cheap materials and so forth. I wouldn’t be surprised if the glass being thinner was part of the problem.”

It’s a start, but there is still a lot of groundwork to be done.

As for hoping a collective solution will soon be found for the spontaneous shattering sunroofs, well, as the guy in your passenger’s seat would say, “Don’t stop believin’.”

Kaitlan Mitchell is the editor of AGRR™ magazine/glassBYTEs.com™. Follow her on Twitter @agrrmagazine and “like” AGRR magazine on Facebook to receive the latest updates.

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