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News Extra: US airbag recall linked to dangerous explosive inflator

17 December 2014

US car safety regulators have expanded a recall of vehicles with potentially dangerous airbags made by Japanese auto parts supplier Takata to 7.8 million. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) warned that owners should take "immediate action" as when deployed, the airbags have the potential to eject deadly shrapnel at passengers.

Stock image
Stock image

The NHTSA has identified 10 manufacturers who used Takata as a supplier, including and Honda, Toyota and General Motors.

The agency has told those who might own affected vehicles to check the list at, and specifically warned those living in more humid climates such as Florida and Hawaii to get their vehicles inspected.

"Responding to these recalls, whether old or new, is essential to personal safety and it will help aid our ongoing investigation into Takata airbags and what appears to be a problem related to extended exposure to consistently high humidity and temperatures," said NHTSA deputy administrator David Friedman in a statement.

Initially, the NHTSA said that only 4.7 million cars could be affected, but it has increased the number of vehicles twice in recent days. Takata said it estimated that around 12 million vehicles around the globe may contain the faulty parts, but a recent Reuters report puts the figure at more than 16 million worldwide.

The recall notices have been ongoing for the past 18 months, but regulators and car manufacturers have warned that only a small percentage of those cars potentially affected have been returned and inspected.

The majority of the affected vehicles - more than five million - are Honda cars manufactured between 2001 and 2011, including the Accord, Civic, and Pilot models.

Air bags made by Takata are linked to at least four deaths and more than 30 injuries in the US alone after the safety devices deployed with too much force, spraying metal shrapnel at occupants.

In May 2009 a student driving a 2001 Honda Accord bumped into a car in a parking lot outside Oklahoma City, causing the airbag to explode and shrapnel to slice the driver’s carotid artery leading to her death. In August 2014, an inflator ruptured in a 2005 Honda Civic in the United States, sending a "one-inch piece of shrapnel into the driver’s right eye", according to a complaint filed with NHTSA. In January 2014, a 2002 Toyota Corolla in Shizuoka, Japan had its airbag explode, sending hot shrapnel into the car. The passenger seat was burned, Toyota said.
Takata told US safety regulators that the core of the problem was how the explosive material used to inflate Takata air bags had been handled and processed at plants in the United States and Mexico.

According to a Bloomberg report, the explosive used to initiate airbag inflation is a prominent line of inquiry for investigators. Takata uses ammonium nitrate, which is volatile and highly sensitive to moisture. Other airbag manufacturers, including Takata's larger Swedish rival, Autoliv Inc, use a different type of explosive initiator. 

Ammonium nitrate is the compound responsible for a number of fertiliser and explosive plant blasts over the years, most recently at the fertiliser storage facility at West in Texas in 2013 which killed 15 and injured more than 160.

In March 2006, Takata's airbag plant at Monclova in Mexico was rocked by a series of explosions that sent a fireball into the air. It is not known if ammonium nitrate was involved in these blasts.

Takata has identified several manufacturing problems with its inflators, including some at a plant in Moses Lake, Washington, and at Monclova, where the ammonium nitrate was exposed to too much moisture inside the air-conditioned plant. This meant the inflator propellant could burn too fast and blow apart the metal casing surrounding it, sending out hot gas and shrapnel.
The company's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Shigehisa Takada, has issued an apology in response to the safety crisis caused by its airbags.

"We deeply regret that the recent recalls of vehicles equipped with our airbags have likely raised significant concerns and troubles to our product users, our customers, shareholders and other stakeholders," he said in a statement.

The recalls have been enormously expensive for the company - Takata shares have lost more than 50% of their value this year – and also for the auto manufacturers that use its airbags.
On October 27, a class action lawsuit against Takata and several of the auto manufacturers was filed with a US District Court in Florida. It claims Takata and companies such as Honda and Toyota hid the alleged airbag defects from consumers.

This is believed to be the first in the United States to seek class-action status on behalf of consumers nationwide. If that status is granted, it could subject Takata to a larger payout in a settlement than if vehicle owners were forced to sue individually.

The federal lawsuit is at least the third filed against Takata in late October over alleged airbag defects. The other lawsuits were brought on behalf of individual owners.

And on November 6, a report in the New York Times alleged that Takata engineers carried out secret tests on discarded airbags in 2004, after becoming concerned over an incident in Alabama in which one of the company's airbags ruptured.

Takata secretly conducted tests on 50 airbags it retrieved from scrapyards, according to two former employees involved in the tests, one of whom was a senior member of its testing lab.
The Japanese company's engineers were alarmed by what they found. But instead of alerting regulators, the report says that Takata executives "ordered the lab technicians to delete the testing data from their computers and dispose of the airbag inflators in the trash." The first airbag recall was not issued until November 2008.

This has been a record year for car recalls in the USA affecting more than 52 million vehicles. About one in every five cars on the road has been recalled.

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