It is estimated that one of every five cars on the highway has a Takata airbag—that’s more than 100 million vehicles around the world. So far the shrapnel from these exploding airbags has killed 10 people in the US and injured more than 100.
When the defective airbag deploys it can send shrapnel into the vehicle—often deadly, as was the case in a recent accident when the airbag deployed after a low-speed collision. The passenger was unharmed. The driver, his brother, was hit in the neck with a piece of metal, which deployed with such impact that it severed the carotid artery and the jugular vein, and fractured the windpipe. He died on the scene of the accident.
The airbags currently used by Takata contact ammonium nitrate, the same explosive substance used in bombings and rocket fuel. Takata engineers were able to form the propellant into tablets that are used in the airbags—when the car crashes a sequence is started and the airbags explode. But the problem is that ammonium nitrate degrades in the presence of moisture. When it degrades it becomes unstable and can explode unexpectedly, sending shards of metal flying through the vehicle’s occupant compartment.
In the late 1990’s Takata began working to improve the stability of ammonium nitrate amidst various concerns voiced by company engineers. Mark Lillie is a propellant expert who was hired by Takata in 1994 and left the company in 1999, partly due to his concerns over the problems with ammonium nitrate and the company’s disregard for his warnings. He has been involved in the recent hearings and has reviewed documents obtained from the company. Takata began having incidents related to the use of the propellant as early as 2004, when an automotive crash resulted in an injury to an Alabama driver. The problems continued as Takata continued to downplay the dangers associated with ammonium nitrate airbags.
A Senate investigation has uncovered documents that reveal how test data was manipulated, along with other attempts to cover up the concerns and problems with the airbags. In one document, it was noted that the airbags, “exhibit significant aggressive behavior with regard to ballistic properties”. The document also noted that air bags are subject to environmental conditions that can cause problems, including “over-pressurization to inflator leading to rupture.” Lillie noted, in his review of the documents, “Takata has always maintained that their ‘phase-stabilized” ammonium nitrate is safe and effective for use in airbag inflators when properly manufactured and installed.” In June 2015, when Takata CEO, Shigehisa Takada, spoke on the current situation he reiterated that the airbags are safe; the source of the trouble is a mystery.
Regulators did briefly investigate Takata in late 2009, closing the investigation when the company identified the problem as a manufacturing mistake. At that point Honda recalled the airbags in question. “My take is that if NHTSA had done the right thing and really probed Takata, they could have caught it a lot sooner and we wouldn’t have the crisis we have today,” says Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. “Takata made one of the most colossal blunders in the history of the industry.” (Bloomberg.com, 06-02-16)
It would take another 6 years for Takata to acknowledge a widespread problem. NTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas stated, “Takata provided inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading information to regulators for nearly a decade.” At that point (2015) NHTSA issued a national recall of roughly 22 million inflators. In early May of this year after reviewing three independent investigations, federal regulators have reached a conclusion. “The science now clearly shows that these inflators can become unsafe over time, and faster when exposed to high humidity and high temperature fluctuations,” said Mark Rosekind, the head of NHTSA. The agency expanded the recall to more than 60 million airbags—every one that does not have the added drying agent. The airbags must be replaced by 2019. Additionally Takata must prove, by 2019, that the ammonium nitrate airbags that contain the drying agent are safe. (Bloomberg.com, 06-02-16)
Takata has been ordered to pay a $70 million fine, which could rise to $130 if the company fails to carry out the commitment. This is now the largest fine ever imposed by the NHTSA and the largest recall.
As of May 2016 only 8.4 million Takata air bags had been replaced. Bloomberg News reports a worldwide figure of 100 million air bags yet to be replaced. Sadly, the Senate report also noted that four carmakers are currently selling new models with the faulty air bags, which will have to be added to the wait list of airbag recalls.
How could this possibly happen, you may ask. The answer is: money. Takata, and its automobile manufacturing partners, Honda, Toyota, etc. hid the truth, looked the other way (the old ostrich head in the sand routine) and also persuaded NHTSA to do the same. NHTSA may also be saddled with a level of incompetence, in addition to being a stepping stone for those who wish to parlay their government agency job into a high-paying position with a major auto maker. The sad truth is, this may never change.