US Expands Takata Air Bag Recall To 40 Million Vehicles


Things just got worse for Takata, the Japanese company that makes airbag inflators for trucks and cars. It is already in the middle of a recall campaign to replace some 29 million inflators in US vehicles deemed to be defective. It is the largest and most complex recall campaign in US history. Yesterday, it got a lot bigger.

Takata air bag via AN

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says up to 40 million more airbag inflators will need to be replaced by the end of 2019. “It’s going to force them into bankruptcy unless they can get a consortium of Japanese banks to bail them out,” says Scott Upham, president of Valient Market Research.

The problem is that Takata uses ammonium nitrate, a blasting agent used in open pit mining operations, as the propellant in its inflators. Unless that compound is mixed with a drying agent — a desiccant, as it is known in the trade — it can become unstable when exposed to temperature changes and high humidity over long periods of time.

NHTSA says it can take between 6 and 25 years for the changes in chemistry to take place, but the inflators do not pose an “unreasonable risk to safety” until they reach “a certain level of propellant degradation.”

When they do, the inflator can explode with greater than intended force, shattering the container around it, and sending shards of metal flying around. In other words, it can turn itself into a version of what the military calls a fragmentation grenade. Some Takata inflators have the desiccant mixed in, some do not. In total, there are about 85 million Takata inflators installed in trucks and automobiles in the US.

Defects in Takata airbags have been linked to 10 U.S. deaths and more than 100 injuries over the last several years. Just this week, Honda confirmed two additional fatalities in April and May, both in Malaysia. “The science clearly shows that these inflators become unsafe over time, faster when exposed to humidity and variations of temperature,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement.

The expansions announced today will take place in five phases prioritized by risk, starting in May and continuing through December 2019. Older vehicles in hot, humid climates will receive higher priority for replacement parts than newer vehicles in less-humid climates.

Some critics question whether using ammonium nitrate is ever safe, even when mixed with drying agents. NHTSA says Takata must prove that all its airbag inflators are safe before the end of 2019 or face the possibility of  replacing yet another 50 million units.

The new recall affects vehicles manufactured by Jaguar-Land Rover, Fisker, and Tesla Motors for the first time. Fourteen other auto companies, including American Honda, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, Nissan and Fiat-Chrysler are already affected by the recalls.

It can be argued that airbags have saved far more lives and prevented far more injuries than they have caused. While that may be true, the idea that there may be a ticking time bomb inside the steering wheel or dashboard has to be cause for concern for many drivers, particularly those with older cars used in hot, moist climates.

Source and photo credit: Automotive News

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  • dogphlap dogphlap

    As the owner of a 16 year old Ford that has lived all those years in a hot and humid climate I’d love to know if my car is in danger of becoming an anti personnel grenade.
    I’ve never been entirely happy with the thought that a bomb lurches at my steering wheel boss and have contemplated removing the fuse for that circuit (though I have never acted on that thought). However this problem requires no electrical energy to trigger so even if I had I’d still be just as vulnerable as the other many million motorists driving around with these particular air bags.
    I’m a great believer in seat belts and find it ironic that my insurance company will not cover cars that have a five point harness installed rather than the car manufacturers less ideal lap-diagonal design. If it were possible I’d much rather have a good harness and no air-bags but I have to live with what the insurance companies require and just hope that the air-bags do not go off of their own accord as the long term consequence of moisture ingress and high ambient temperature. Ford have not communicated with me yet and I don’t really expect them to (if they did and I had one of the vulnerable cars I’d remove that air-bag immediately and as I always have, rely on my seat belt).

    • Steve Hanley

      Good comment. I’m guessing here. You’re the owner of a 16 year old Ford and have a penchant for 5 point racing harnesses — could the car be a Mustang?

      • dogphlap dogphlap

        Not a Mustang. A Ford AU wagon, made in Australia and it has been a very good and reliable workhorse. I have not driven it much in the last six months since I got my Model S 70D which ironically has more air-bags than you could shake a stick at (the old Ford only has one).

        • Steve Hanley

          I am sad to say, Tesla has now been included in the group of manufacturers who have airbags made by Takata installed in their cars. This could turn out to be the biggest automotive recall in history.

          The good news is that Tesla will probably be proactive whereas the other manufacturers will slow walk any repairs, trying to save a few shekels.

          I will be visiting my son and his family in Sydney in January. Can’t wait to get back to Oz.