It’s a cool, sunny day, and you and your family are taking a nice leisurely drive up the Natchez Trace to see the spectacle of the changing leaves. You’ve retracted your car’s sunroof shade to let the sunshine fill the car with its warming rays, when suddenly you hear loud popping sounds, like gunshots, and you and your kids are covered in a shower of glass fragments.
Sound far-fetched? It’s not.
Since 1995, nearly 900 reports of exploding sunroofs have been filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about three-quarters of those since 2011 and peaking in 2015. No deaths have been reported, but there have been at least 36 reports of injuries, according to an extensive report released Oct. 12 by consumer watchdog Consumer Reports. And, the authors discovered, the number of incidents reported to the NHTSA is likely a small fraction of the actual incidents.
“These incidents have happened in every month of the year in every part of the country, in vehicles from all over the world,” Consumer Reports noted in its report. “They have occurred on interstates, on country roads, and even while parked in driveways.”
Consumer Reports listed Hyundai and Ford as the brands from which sunroof failures were most reported, and covered the spectrum of car brands, but some specific models such as the Scion tC and Hyundai Veloster had the highest rates of reports. The magazine reported that the government is investigating only the Kia Sorento for sunroof issues. It must be stated (as Consumer Reports acknowledged) that the odds of an exploding sunroof are pretty low, but it becomes a big deal when it happens to you.
Vehicle owners report that automakers have in some cases been reluctant to acknowledge the failures of the sunroofs as a design flaw, leaving vehicle owners to pay for the damage themselves in many cases.
As to what causes the sunroofs to shatter, Consumers’ Union scientists quoted in the article say it’s still an open question, but they suspect it has to do with the ever-increasing demands for larger sunroofs, leading automakers to use under-engineered sunroof designs. Many of the newer designs use tempered glass (the same as those in car windows), but also require glass to be more curved, which places stress on the glass that standard tempered glass may be unable to withstand. As heat causes the materials surrounding the glass (and the glass itself) to expand at different rates, it can stress the sunroof to the breaking point.
As for a remedy, Consumer Reports suggests that — if the curving and large areas of newer sunroofs are to blame — the solution could be to use laminated glass to make sunroofs stronger, or a hybrid glass that blends the best characteristics of both.
So, if you’re in the market for a vehicle with a sunroof, Consumer Reports recommends you ask the dealer if the sunroof is made of laminated glass. (It should be stamped in an inconspicuous place on the glass.) Ask about whether the warranty covers sunroof failures, and contact your insurance agent to see if your policy covers such an incident. If you hear unexplained popping sounds, which often precede a sunroof failure, ask your dealer to take a look at it.
And if you experience a sunroof failure, don’t panic; stop as safely as possible and make sure you’re not injured by falling glass. Document the damage by taking photos, and file a report immediately. More details are in Consumer Reports’ report at http://www.consumerreports.org/car-safety/exploding-sunroofs-danger-overhead/.